Aug
2013

Loving God With All Your Mind

The Gospel account of Jesus’s teaching on the Great Commandment is found in Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28.  These accounts differ on small points: in Matthew, the expert on the Jewish law seeks to test Jesus when he asks his question; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert.  In all three, however, the answer is the same: no single commandment is the greatest.  The Torah hangs not on one, but on two essential prescriptions: love for God, and love for neighbor.

The second “great commandment” is fairly straightforward.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

One could perhaps ask, as the lawyer does in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?”  But we know, as he certainly must have known, that this is a worthless question.  The real question, as Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is how can we demonstrate love for our neighbors?  These United Methodist youth, helping with flood cleanup in Dubois, PA, certainly get it!

The commandment to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  While many interpretations of this commandment find here three different ways of loving God, that does not seem to be the intent of the passage in Deuteronomy.  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: loving God with all your heart means loving God as much as you can.  To love God with all one’s being (Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul;” it refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of oneself) is another way of saying that one is to love God entirely.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew; it means literally “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

In the Greek of the New Testament, however, and in the minds of early Christians influenced by Greek thought, this command does become a threefold (or more) depiction of loving God with every aspect of one’s being.  The KJV of Mark 12:30 reads,”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”  The heart (Greek kardia) is in Greek as in Hebrew the center of the self, or the will–the choosing, deciding aspect of the person.  The soul (Greek psyche) can refer (unlike Hebrew nephesh) to the immaterial, spiritual part of the person.  One’s might (Greek hischus) could be regarded as relating to one’s physical, material self.  Which leaves the Greek word dianoia, referring to thoughts and intentions, commonly translated as “mind.”

What might it mean to love God with all one’s mind?  At the opening of his theological treatise ProslogiumSaint Anselm of Canterbury prays,

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that unless I believed, I should not understand.

Indeed, Anselm writes, he had at first intended to title this theological work “Faith Seeking Understanding.”

In a comment on last week’s blog (“‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?,” August 6. 2013), one person wrote in part:

This is the main paradox of theology. The attempt to explain something only leads to further confusion. The simplicity of the faith is destroyed by a series of complex negotiations with the truth in order to produce a palatable, watered down version of an AMAZING gift of grace which is freely given (not coerced).  So many want to say what the Gospel isn’t to make it more tolerable so that we can get people to buy in on that soft marginal basis. 

St. Anselm would say amen to part of this.  We come to know and love God first through God’s love and grace showered on us, freely and without regard to our worthiness.  God loves us first.  As a Christian believer, I came to know that love of God through my experience of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.  No one is every argued into the kingdom: all of us are loved in.  The experience of God’s grace through faith in Christ comes first.  When I forget that essential order, I trust that you all will join in reminding me.

But that said, having experienced God, we seek to talk meaningfully and intelligibly about what has happened to us.  Our experience is not rational–that is, it cannot be reduced to reason.  But it is surely not irrational, either.

God created the universe, which though vast and mysterious is yet comprehensible and knowable: so much so that the intelligibility of the universe, which is describable by mathematics, is one strong demonstration of the reasonableness of faith in God.

God comes to meet us in Scripture: in words, in texts, in songs and stories and proverbs and parables that engage our intellect.  Surely such a God is not offended by our questions about God’s own will and nature –ultimately and finally unknowable and indescribable as God is.

In Anselm’s language, we do not believe because we understand; however, believing, we strive to understand: faith seeks understanding.  Theology and Bible study can be tools of human arrogance, attempting to water down or control the uncontrollable, inexpressible being of God–but they need not be.  They may also be a way of loving God, as Christ commands us to do, with all our minds.

 

Aug
2013

“The wrath of God was satisfied”?

In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is certainly one of the most popular contemporary Christian songs in American churches today.  I have often been in worship services where this song was sung–most recently, in one of the services of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.  It is a beautiful, powerful, hymn, and I have no problem singing along–except for one line in the second verse:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Whenever I am in a worship service and this song is sung, I do not sing the bold-faced line.

I have learned that I am not alone in my reluctance.  A YouTube video of Kristian Stanfill from Passion 2013 skips this entire verse–something for which he is taken to task in numerous comments on this video.

Similarly, in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes,

 We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have offered caricatures of the biblical theology of the cross. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.

The committee charged with compiling a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (including my good friend and colleague, systematic theologian Edwin van Driel) asked the composers of this hymn if they could alter this line to “the love of God was magnified.”  When the composers refused to agree to this alteration, the committee decided not to include the hymn.

The response to this decision has been very intriguing.  In an article in the conservative Christian journal First Things, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, numbers the hymnal committee with    “[t]hose who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns.”  He recalls H. Richard Niebuhr’s condemnation of  “liberal Protestant theology, which was called ‘modernism’ in those days, in these famous words: ‘A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.'”  Another response, from Glenn Beck’s website, quotes Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College: “At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the PCUSA cannot abide this hymn.”

Please note: the new PCUSA Hymnal does not ignore the cross, the wrath of God, or even the teaching of Reformer John Calvin that the cross involves Jesus taking on himself God’s punishment for our sin: an idea called “penal substitution.” There will be, in the new Hymnal, ample witnesses to these images and ideas (for examples, see Adam Copeland‘s blog, or check out the new hymnal for yourself).

Despite the extreme responses cited above, there are two separate issues here.  One issue is how we are to understand the cross.  Like N. T. Wright and many other Christians, I am persuaded that penal substitution is neither the only, nor the best, approach to the death of Jesus.  What does it say about God if God’s wrath toward human sin is so great that it cannot be assuaged, but must be poured out on someone?  Further, in the logic of the hymn we are discussing, if “the wrath of God” is “satisfied” by the death of Jesus, is Jesus “Scorned by the ones he came to save,”  or by his heavenly Father?  There are other biblical models for understanding the cross–most powerfully, I propose, the notion of Jesus as Immanuel (God with us) who expresses God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

Another issue altogether is the wrath of God.  I have been writing recently on the Old Testament book of Zephaniah, whose theme is the wrath of God (see Zephaniah 1:17-18).   Of course, we could say, with lay theologians and Ghost Busters Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray, that the “real wrath of God type stuff” is, like Zephaniah, Old Testament!  But we cannot take refuge in “Old Testament  wrath/New  Testament love” nonsense unless we manage our Bible reading very carefully.  

There is in plenty of wrath in the NT as well—indeed, Revelation 16:1-20 features BOWLS of it!

When we consider the context and content of Zephaniah and Revelation, there are plenty of surprises to be found.  Zephaniah 2:1-15 is a collection of oracles directed against the nations surrounding Judah, including Assyria–which could prompt us to think that God’s wrath is directed outward, at the nations.  But the audience for these words of judgment isn’t the nations, but Zephaniah’s own people in Judah (see Zephaniah 2:1-3).  Judah is called a goy (the Hebrew word commonly used for foreign nations) in 2:1.  Further, 2:3 is expressly directed to the righteous: “all you humble of the land who practice his justice.”  For Zephaniah, God’s wrath serves as a warning for the faithful, more than as a condemnation of outsiders.

The judgment in Revelation 16, on the other hand, certainly seems outer-directed: the bowls of wrath are poured out on those marked by the beast (Revelation 16:2).  Yet again and again in this chapter (see Revelation 16:9 and 11), we are told that those punished did not repent–suggesting that repentance, not punishment, is God’s desire.

So too in Zephaniah 2:1-3, the community of the faithful is urged:

Gather together and assemble yourselves, shameless nation,
before the decision is made—the day vanishes like chaff—
before the burning anger of the Lord comes against you,
before the day of the Lord’s anger comes against you.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land who practice his justice;
seek righteousness;
seek humility.
Maybe you will be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger.

Perhaps the biblical message of God’s wrath is aimed at affecting change within the community—as God’s response to our unresponsiveness.

Too often, those who preach the wrath of God are all too certain of the mind of God, and of those against whom God’s wrath is directed.  The message of God’s wrath far too easily becomes a message of self-vindication, used to justify rejection of and even violence towards those we deem outsiders. But what if instead, as in Zephaniah, the wrath of God is a call to the community to come together: to gather, and to change?

God’s wrath is not after all opposed to God’s love. God’s wrath is directed against injustice because God loves justice.  God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed.  God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love

May the wrath of God call us, then, not to division, but to union: to a passionate commitment to Christ, a zealous devotion to Christ’s church, and a determined stand against the hatred and self-righteousness that keep the church scattered and divided, rather than gathered together in grace.

 

 

Aug
2013

God’s Song

In C. S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew, the lion Aslan, Lewis’ Christ figure, sings the world of Narnia into being:

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing… Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise ever heard… The eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose.

This is a beautiful, powerful image.  But it also prompts an intriguing question.

Lewis, of course, was a Christian thinker, who invited his readers to think about the world and their lives in terms of the Christian faith.  Certainly, his description of Narnia’s beginnings calls to mind powerful images of creation from the Bible, particularly Genesis 1:1–2:4a, where God speaks the world into being (see also John 1:1-18).

But, does the God of Scripture ever sing?

While the Bible is filled with songs sung to God, I can think of only two places in the Hebrew Bible where a song is sung by God.  First, in Isaiah 5:1, the prophet, speaking for God, says,”Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard” (CEB).

In ancient Israel, love songs used vines and vineyards as scenes for romance and as symbols of erotic love and fertility (see Psalm 128:3Song of Songs 1:6, 14; 2:13; 7:8, 12). It is little wonder, then, that the Bible often describes Israel, God’s beloved, as a vine or a vineyard (for example, Jeremiah 2:21; Hosea 10:1; 14:7).  Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33–43) and the description of Christ and the church as the true vine and its branches (John 15:1–17) both play on this image.

Still, the poem that follows (Isa 5:1-7) doesn’t sound much like a love song!  God condemns God’s people for faithlessness, violence and injustice:

The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isaiah 5:7).

Isaiah 5:1-7, despite its romantic setting, turns out to be a lament rather than a love song.

The second place where God sings in Scripture is Zephaniah 3:17 (CEB):

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
        He will create calm with his love;
        he will rejoice over you with singing.

Here, God joins in Zion’s song of joy (Zephaniah 3:14-15), restoring even the weak and lame (Zephaniah 3:19)!  In Hebrew, the word used in Zephaniah for God’s singing is different from the word used in Isaiah–not shir (the usual term for singing), but rinnah.  This word may be onomatopoeic (like, for example, English words such as “thump” or “zing”), meant to represent the joyous, triumphant sound of ululation, still heard in the Middle East today at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other celebrations!  

Edith Humphrey observes that while there are few biblical references to God singing, “[A]ll songs are inspired by that One. . . . he promised by the prophet Zephaniah (3:17) to utter his rinnah, his ululation or great cry of triumph, when we his people are renewed” (Grand Entrance : Worship on Earth as in Heaven  [Grand Rapids, MI : Brazos Press, 2011], 197).


 

Perhaps all our singing is an echo of God’s song, as all creation is caught up in God’s exultant joy.  As Gregory of Nazianzus prayed,

All things breathe you a prayer,

A silent hymn of your own composing.

Folk singer and songwriter Bill Staines surely knew what he was singing about: “All God’s critters got a place in the choir”!

Jul
2013

What Goes Into the Bible

When I told a friend in ministry about the Ezekiel symposium this past month in St. Andrews (see last week’s post), she asked me, “What’s new in Ezekiel studies?”  I didn’t have to think long.  Nearly every paper presented (including mine) dealt in one way or another with Papyrus 967, an ancient Greek manuscript from around 200 AD found in 1931, but whose significance was not understood until recently.  P967 contains the oldest nearly complete (1:1–2:24 is missing) text of Ezekiel extant in any language. This Greek version of Ezekiel was clearly translated from a very different Hebrew text than the one on which our Old Testament book of Ezekiel is based.  One point of particular interest is that a significant hunk of the book, Ezekiel 36:23c [after “I am the LORD”]-32, is not found in this manuscript!

Readers of Ezekiel have long struggled with these verses. The Septuagint of this section (see “Which Bible?”, May 28, 2013) is different in style and vocabulary from the rest of the book, suggesting that it was inserted later.  The Hebrew Masoretic text stands apart, too, combining quotes and allusions from earlier in the book (for example, compare 36:26 with 11:19 and 18:31) with vocabulary found nowhere else: for example, the expression “clean water” (Hebrew mayim teharim) in 36:25. Not only P967, but also Codex Wirceburgensis, one of the oldest and best witnesses to the Old Latin text of Ezekiel, lacks 36:26c-32.  An old lectionary (that is, a list of Bible readings) in Coptic/Sahidic has 36:16–23a as a unit, ending the passage at the same point as P967.  While 36:26c-32 were certainly incorporated into the text of Ezekiel by the first century AD (a fragment of Ezekiel from Masada has them), all of this suggests that these verses were not part of the book of Ezekiel until late.

This is not the only passage in our Bible which seems to have been inserted later.  One New Testament example is the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 7:53–8:11.

As the CEB footnote on 8:11 indicates, “Critical editions of the Gk New Testament do not contain 7:538:11.”  This is because none of the oldest and best texts of the gospel include this passage.  Further, some later manuscripts that do include it place it at the end of the gospel, while others place it in Luke!

What do we do with this?  We could perhaps say that, since we have good evidence that Ezekiel 36:23c-32 and John 7:53–8:11 are late insertions into the text, we shouldn’t regard them as Scripture.  The problem is that we have a long tradition that does treat them as Scripture.  In the case of the Ezekiel passage, it is likely that the description of baptism in Hebrews 10:22 draws on Ezekiel 36:25.  There is evidence from the early church that the story of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ forgiveness of her, wherever it came from, was much loved from early on–and it has certainly lodged itself firmly in Christian devotional life, art, and music!  Both passages contain significant statements of faith.  Ezekiel 36:24-28 affirms that the “new spirit” God gives to God’s people is God’s own Spirit, filling them with God’s very life.  Jesus’ statement, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone” (John 8:7, CEB) is a classic condemnation of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.  Do we need to give them up?

Every day on my way to work, I pass a church whose electronic message board reads, “Living Out the Unchanging Word To Serve an Ever-Changing World.”  Classical Protestantism has drawn a firm line between Scripture and tradition.  We would like to say that the Bible is fixed and doesn’t change, while tradition shifts.  But while the Bible may be closed and complete now, it clearly has its own complicated history.  Questions about what the Bible says on any issue cannot be resolved without taking that history into consideration.

The Bible is not the word of God because it is a magic book, passed down intact and without error from heaven. It is the word of God because God meets us here, in these pages, and invites us into relationship. Too often, we turn to the Bible to end conversations, like barflies using the Guinness Book of World Records to settle a bet: “See, it says so right here!”  We should instead turn to Scripture to begin a conversation–or more accurately, to enter into an ongoing conversation–in which God is not the topic, but an active participant.

 

 

Jul
2013

It’s About Time. . .

We are back home from the glorious hills and isles and lochs of Scotland.  A constant of our trip was a heightened awareness of time, and of age.  I live in a country founded in 1776, 237 years ago.  We think of something as “old” if it has been here for a century or two.  But Wendy and I spent the last four days of our time in Scotland on the campus of the University of St. Andrews, celebrating its 600th birthday this year!

The last meeting of our Ezekiel symposium (thank you, Bill Tooman!) was in the faculty lounge of the St. Mary’s College School of Divinity, established in 1539.

In St. Andrews, we walked through the ruins of Cardinal Beaton’s Castle

and the St. Andrews cathedral,

both toppled as a consequence of the Scottish Reformation in the mid to late 15oos.

But St. Andrews is new compared to the remains of St. Columba‘s abbey on Iona, established in 563.  In front of the restored Dominican abbey that is today the spiritual center of the ecumenical, worldwide Iona Community stands St. Martin’s Cross.

The last of the high crosses erected by Columba’s monks still standing, St. Martin’s cross has stood in its place on Iona for 1,200 years.

St Columba’s Iona and St. Martin’s cross are in turn young compared to the 500 or more Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in and around the valley of Kilmartin Glen.  The burial cairns,

the Temple Wood circle,

and the standing stones of Kilmartin

have stood sentinel since 5,000 BC.

As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I work with ancient texts.  But even the oldest biblical texts are over 3,000 years younger than the stones at Kilmartin.  Of course, geologists would remind me of the vast age of the earth, likely 4.54 billion years, and astronomers would in turn remind me of how relatively young our solar system itself is, in comparison with the age of the universe: perhaps 13.82 billion years.

This awareness of deep time contrasted to the brief span of human life, and even of the lives of nations, is profoundly humbling.  Yet as the Bible itself testifies, God was at work with human beings long before the birth of Israel in the mid-thirteenth century BC.  Indeed, God was at work on the earth before humanity, and in the cosmos before the earth–from before the beginning of time.  As the writer of Colossians affirms,

. . . all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.

He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him

 (Colossians 1:15-20 CEB).

To quote the irrepressible Paul Simon, “God is old!   We’re not old.”  Good to know that we ephemeral creatures are held, and loved, by the Ancient of Days!

 

Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 4

 

This is the fourth and final blog in this series on Bible translations, aimed at helping readers choose among various Bibles.  Today we look at the popular paraphrase, The Message, and a new, very accessible translation, the Common English Bible.

Some popular versions of the Bible are not translations at all, but paraphrases.  In a paraphrase, the words of Scripture are freely reframed in contemporary language, using the forms of speech that we use every day.  As a result, paraphrases are easy to read, and so can be very good for personal reading and devotions.

When I was a young Christian, my Bible of choice was The Living Bible (1971), a modern English paraphrase of the ASV (see “Which Bible? Part 2”, June 4, 2013) done by Kenneth Taylor, originally for his own children.  My copy of The Way looked exactly like the one pictured here!  In this paraphrase, Psalm 23:6 read, “Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.”  Still today, as I read these words, I can hear in the back of my head Ralph Carmichael’s musical setting of Taylor’s paraphrase of this Psalm, called “The New 23rd.”

Today, many Christians enjoy reading The Message, by Eugene Petersen.  This paraphrase is, as one would expect from Petersen, vigorous, creative, and pastorally sensitive.  These features are amply demonstrated by Psalm 23:6 as rendered in The Message:

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

However, Petersen’s paraphrase is still a paraphrase, not a translation.  That means that it  is not intended for serious study, or as text for preaching.

Why am I so insistent on this?  A couple of examples will, I hope, make my point.  I once heard a sermon, based on The Message, from Matthew 9:35–10:4, but particularly 9:38–10:1:

“What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”  The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.

Petersen’s paraphrase makes numerous assumptions: that the commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 10 follows, chronologically, immediately upon Jesus’ statement about the harvest in 9:37-38; that the commissioning of the Twelve is an answer to the prayer in 9:38; that the healing ministry to which the disciples are called in 10:1 can be equated, in contemporary psychological jargon, to caring for “bruised and hurt lives.”  None of these assumptions is warranted by a simple translation of the text–which is not a problem, if we understand that The Message is not Scripture, but rather Petersen’s meditations upon Scripture.

But when we use The Message as text for preaching, it does become a problem.  The particular sermon I am describing had as its central theme the line, “The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered.”  It was an interesting, dynamic message about being willing to be used by God as the answer to our own prayers. But the central focus of that message was a line of Petersen’s paraphrase that does not appear in the Greek text of the Gospel, and so is not found in any actual translation of this text.  In short, this was not a sermon on a text from Scripture at all: it was a sermon on a meditation from Petersen.  That, I propose, is a major problem.

In my own preaching, I often use insights and stories from scholars and colleagues.  I use scenes from films and books, jokes, stories, poems, songs  –anything that may help a congregation apply the message of a text to their situation.  But it would be a very different matter if I set out to preach from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or if I used a scene from “Man of Steel,” or a line from “The Simpsons,” as my text.  The Message too may be used very effectively as an illustration, to jolt an audience into hearing a familiar text with fresh ears.  But it cannot be used as text for preaching, because it is not Scripture!

The problem with using The Message for Bible study may be illustrated by the conclusion of Paul’s famous Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13:13.  In the CEB, this reads, “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.

Petersen’s paraphrase is much longer:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

Much of this is simply not in the text: again, not a problem if we regard this as Petersen’s own meditation on Paul. But this time, there is a major grammatical distinction between The Message and any translation of Paul’s Greek.  In the text of 1 Corinthians, faith (pistis), hope (elpis), and love (agape) are nouns.  These are gifts of God–carrying on the theme from 1 Corinthians 12 of the gifts of God’s Spirit–that endure into eternity.  But in Petersen’s paraphrase, these become verbs–things that we must do “to lead us toward that consummation.”  That reading conflicts with Paul’s own understanding of the gospel as based on God’s free gift in Jesus Christ, not on our own efforts (for example, see Romans 3:21-26; 4:1-5).

For casual reading, for devotional reflection, or as a source of sermon illustrations, The Message is an excellent resource–that, indeed, is what it is meant for.  But no paraphrase can bear the weight of  study, or serve as text for preaching: to use this paraphrase, or any other, for those purposes is to misuse them.

If you are looking for a text that is both easy to read and a responsible translation from the original languages, I recommend the Common English Bible (CEB).

The Common English Bible (2011) is the work of the CEB Committee,
an alliance of five denominational
publishers, and features the work of 117 translators from 22 faith traditions and 5 countries.  The translation was vetted by 77 field testing groups with 400 participants in 13 denominations.  As you may have noticed, it is the version I have been using for references in my blog. I made this choice because the CEB is one of the most accessible English Bibles available, aimed at a seventh grade reading level.  This simplified vocabulary does not in any way mean that the translation is “dumbed down,” however.   The translators have been very creative in their use of the words at their disposal, leading to intriguing translation choices.

For example, the expression “Son of Man” (Hebrew ben ‘adam, Aramaic bar ‘enosh, Greek houios tou anthropou) is a very difficult phrase to translate well.  On the one hand, the masculine implications of the literal translation “son” are misleading.  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “son of X” is a way of indicating membership in a group (for example, bene Yisra’el, literally “sons of Israel,” typically means “Israelites”), making “human” or “mortal” the best translation of this phrase in most contexts (compare Ezekiel 2:1 in the NRSV and the NIV).  But on the other hand, as any reader of the Gospels knows, Jesus commonly refers to himself as Son of Man, so that this becomes a title for the Christ–making “human” a misleading translation (as the NRSV recognizes: see Mark 14:62).  The CEB gets around this by rendering “Son of Man,” in most places that it appears, as “Human One” (for example, see Ezekiel 2:1 and Mark 14:62).

In the CEB, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD’s house
as long as I live.

Here, a footnote on “live” reads (with my explanatory comments in brackets) “LXX [the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of Jewish Scripture; see “Which Bible?”, May 28, 2013)]; MT [that, remember, stands for “Masoretic Text,” the Hebrew scribal tradition that gives us our Hebrew Bible] I will return.”  All in all, this is the best rendering of the Hebrew for this verse in any English translation that I know!

The problems with the CEB are in many ways connected to its successes.  Aiming for accessibility rather than poetic grandeur, the CEB has a casual feel: for example, the translators have chosen to use contractions (compare Matthew 28:16-20 in the KJV, NRSV, and CEB).  To some ears, this informal tone may mean that the CEB lacks the gravitas necessary for public reading.

For ease and accessibility, it is hard to beat the CEB–though for serious study, I still recommend the NRSV. For a beautiful and fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible, I urge you to try the JPSV.  But most of all, I urge you to find a Bible, pick it up, and read it, in big hunks; let the wisdom of Scripture fill your life!

AFTERWORD

For the next two weeks, I will be in Scotland for the International Society of Biblical Literature‘s annual meeting.  Please pray for Wendy and for me as we travel!  The Bible Guy will resume blogging at this address in the middle of July.  See you then!

Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 3

Selecting a Bible is a challenge today, given the number of Bible translations now available.  This is Part 3 of a series of blogs, aimed at helping the reader choose based on the features of each translation, recognizing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of each version.  In our last post in this series (“Which Bible? Part 2,” June 4, 2013), we considered the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and its recent revision, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV–my personal recommendation for serious study).

The RSV was widely accepted by many Christians, particularly in the so-called “mainline” churches (for example, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ).  But other Christians were disturbed by changes to beloved texts.  Some even went so far as to condemn the translation as heretical, or at least as damaging to the faith.  Bruce Metzger kept on his mantelpiece a block of ash: a burned copy of the RSV that angry protestors had mailed to him!

It was in large measure the desire for a translation deemed more friendly to Evangelical concerns that led to the New International Version (NIV) in 1973.  This translation has undergone further refinements (1978, 1984, 2011), but its fundamental character remains unchanged.   The Preface to the 2011 edition makes this Evangelical Christian commitment clear: “The committee has again been reminded that every human effort is flawed — including this revision of the NIV. We trust, however, that many will find in it an improved representation of the Word of God, through which they hear his call to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and to service in his kingdom. We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made.”

One example of this Evangelical commitment is the translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which the KJV commonly rendered as “hell.”  Sheol is a place name, referring to the underworld as the place of the dead (for example, see Psalm 139:8 in the NRSV). This of course doesn’t quite jibe with Christian ideas about the afterlife. So until the 2011 edition, the NIV translated this word, in nearly every instance, as “the grave”–though Sheol never appears with the article (the word “the”), and rarely occurs in narratives about death and burial.

Another example of translation guided by ideology, rather than simply by grammar, is found in John 3:1-21: Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  The KJV of John 3:7 reads, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” This verse is a mainstay of Evangelical preaching–the basis of many an altar call as a summons to experience a new birth as a child of God.  The Greek word anothen, rendered “again” in the KJV, can mean either “again, anew” or “from above.”  Likely this passage intends both: Jesus describes a life in the Spirit (“from above;” see John 3:5-8), so different from the previous life as to be a fresh start–a new birth (which is why Nicodemus gets confused; see John 3:4).  But this pun is not possible in English, forcing translators to choose how best to render the word.

The RSV reads, “You must be born anew,” with a footnote indicating that “anew” could also be read as “from above.”  Indeed, the NRSV reads, “You must be born from above,” with a footnote indicating “anew” as another reading.  The NIV, like the KJV, has “You must be born again” (though a footnote on John 3:3 reads, “The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7″).

In the NIV, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me    

all the days of my life,                                          

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The only differences from the KJV are the use of “love” instead of “mercy” for the Hebrew khesed (see “Which Bible? Part 2”), and the specification that it is God’s goodness and love that follow me–assumed, but not stated in the Hebrew.

The NIV is easier to read than the NRSV, assuming a high school reading level.  Its translation is generally sound, as long as the reader stays aware of this version’s Evangelical bias.

In recent years, the English Standard Bible (ESV, 2001) has taken pride of place among many Evangelicals.  On their website, the ESV’s publishers state that their translation “provides the most recent evangelical Christian Bible scholarship and enduring readability for today. The ESV translation process itself was based on the trusted principles of essentially literal translation, which combines word-for-word accuracy with readability and literary excellence.”

However, much like the RSV, the ESV stands in the KJV tradition, and tries to preserve its language and rhythms.  So, the ESV of Psalm 23:6 is the same as the RSV, except that a footnote on “mercy” reads “steadfast love,” and an added note on “dwell” reads “return to dwell.”  The latter note recognizes that the Hebrew text is uncertain: the word weshabti could be (and most commonly has been) read as an unusual form of the Hebrew word meaning “dwell” (yashab), but the simplest way to read the Hebrew would be as “I will return.”

Much like the NIV, the ESV has a clearly stated Evangelical bias. But taking that into consideration, the translation is generally sound, and often (as in Psalm 23:6) interesting.

For the Hebrew Bible, one of the most interesting and beautiful English translations available  comes from the Jewish Publication Society (JPSV 1985, 1999).  This translation of the Tanakh (an abbreviation for Torah [Law], Nebi’im [Prophets], and Kethubim [Writings], the three parts of the Hebrew Bible) is intended for Jewish readers.  It stays with the Hebrew text as closely as possible (a problem in those cases where the versions may preserve a better reading), and has been attentive to good English as well as good scholarship (Jewish novelist Chaim Potok was on the translation team!).  I strongly recommend this Bible, especially the Jewish Study Bible edition pictured above, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler.  The introductions and footnotes are by Jewish scholars, and make use of the sayings and teachings of the rabbis.  Christian readers will find that, as the rabbis ask different questions than they do, new insights into the text open up.

The JPSV of Psalm 23:6 reads,

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

Particularly striking is the rendering of Hebrew radaph as “pursue” rather than simply as “follow.”  This is not only accurate (radaph is what predators do to prey, or victors to the vanquished!), but evocative and interesting.

In next week’s post, we will finish this series by looking at the Common English Bible, a very easy to read translation, and paraphrases, particularly Eugene Petersen’s The Message.  See you then.

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy congratulates the newly-ordained 2013 class of elders in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church:

From left, Rebecca Patterson, D. Renee Mikell (PTS alum), Tina M. Keller (PTS alum), Ross T. Pryor, Nathan W. Carlson (PTS alum), Anthony S. Fallisi (PTS alum), and Elizabeth S. Cooper.

Also to be congratulated are those approved as provisional elders:

From left, Jean Ann Smith (PTS student), Chad Bogdewic (PTS alum), Anthony R. C. Hita (PTS alum), and Alison Fisher.

God bless you all richly in this new phase of the ministry to which Christ has called you!  And to the PTS students: it was and is my joy and privilege to be your teacher.

Jun
2013

Stay Tuned!

AN EXPLANATION, AND AN APOLOGY:

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I was in the middle of a series on Bible translations, which will recommence next week.  This week, I have had the blessing to be the preacher at the Summer Leadership Conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  This afternoon, I head for Grove City, PA, where I will teach a Bible study tonight and tomorrow morning called “Opening Doors in Christian Hospitality to All” for Reconciling Ministries, as part of the Lay Academy of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Plus, grades were due Tuesday.  It is all good (well, apart from the grading. . .), but it means that I have not been able to complete my regular weekly blog.

Instead, I would like to share with you the sermon I preached this morning, on Isaiah 50:4-11 (I preached from the NRSV, but I invite you to compare with the CEB in particular), which deals, as it happens, with the issue of translation.  The title was, “Whose Tongue?”

 

A curious translation problem confronts us in the first verse of this  passage.  The problem is not with the text itself, which seems well-preserved, nor with the word in question, which is fairly common.  Instead, translators seem unable to say, straightforwardly, what the text says!  The major English translations vary broadly on their reading of leshon limmudim, the gift the Lord has given to the Servant.  Leshon means “tongue”–no problem there–but, whose tongue?  Is it the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), a “skilled tongue” (JPSV), an “instructed tongue” (NIV), or perhaps the “tongue of the learned” (KJV)?  Yet, when the same word, limmudim, appears later in the verse, it causes little controversy:  “Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear, to listen as those who are taught [kallimmudim].”  Surely, the same word in the same context should be translated the same way both times.  The Servant says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught.”

Perhaps the problem is that Bible translators are usually Bible professors.  We believe that teachers talk, and students listen: that teachers should speak from authority.  But, is that really so? My own experience as a teacher has taught me that my teaching is most effective when I am most engaged in the material myself: learners teach best!  So, too, students learn more when they are actively involved in the process, through discussion, dialogue, projects, and presentations—when, in short, the teacher surrenders authority.  The Servant says that the Lord’s gift was given “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4).  Surely, a word of comfort comes most effectively not from one who stands above me, but from one who kneels beside me: who shares my sorrow, feels my pain, and offers solace as a fellow sufferer.

In the wake of recent tragedies, from the human-spawned horrors of the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing to the devastation wrought by massive tornadoes in Oklahoma, a quote from Fred Rogers has surfaced again and again, going viral on the Web: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In this Song, the Servant appears as a helper.  He does not claim authority, but is responsive and obedient:

The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward (50:5).

Far from standing above and apart, the Servant identifies with the outcast and humiliated, to the point of sharing their humiliation and suffering:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting (50:6).

How do you do that?  The Servant declares, “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced. . . Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:7-9). The strength and validation of the Servant comes not from himself, or from the world, but from the Lord.  This passage is the appointed reading for the Wednesday of Holy Week.  But in the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading ends with verse 9, leaving the unfortunate implication that trust in God removes all our difficulties! The Servant relies upon the Lord, but that does not make his path clear, or easy.  Instead, the Servant

walks in darkness

and has no light,

yet trusts in the name of the LORD

and relies upon his God (50:10).

When the way is unclear, trust is hard to give.  The temptation in dark places is to make our own light, kindle our own torches, become our own guides.  But, the Servant warns all “kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands” who “[w]alk in the flame of your fire:”

This is what you shall have from my hand:

you shall lie down in torment. (50:11).

If we play with fire, we will get burned.

In his book The Crucifixion of Ministry, my friend and colleague Andrew Purves considers the all too common situation of ministers in mid-career, facing a sense of despair, exhaustion, and loss of purpose; what we call “burn-out.”  The root problem in our ministry, Purves suggests, is that we think of it as our ministry, not as Christ’s. Only when “our” ministry is crucified, as it must be, can Christ’s ministry flourish in and through us.  Only then, as we surrender authority and control, can we join the helpers!  Only then can we  teach with “the tongue of those who are taught.”

 

Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 2

The explosion of translations in recent years presents a real challenge to thoughtful readers.  In our next two (or three!) posts, we will consider several translations: today’s post will look at the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version.  For each translation, I will say a little about its motivations and history, talk about its strengths and weaknesses (with examples), and for comparative purposes, give you the same passage in each: the last verse of Psalm 23.  In the King James Version (see the previous post, “Which Bible?”), this reads “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

But first, a word about that word “LORD.”  The translators of the KJV chose to use this word, in all capitals, to represent the Name of God in Hebrew:

in English letters, Yhwh.  By ancient tradition, the Name is not pronounced: in synagogue, when you come to the Name, you say Adonai: that is, “my Lord.”  Hebrew scribes, both to insure that the Name would not be pronounced accidentally and to remind the reader what was supposed to be said, wrote the Name with the vowels of Adonai.  European translators ignorant of this convention came up with the pronunciation “Jehovah,” which is used seven times in the KJV, usually where the context seemed to require a name rather than a title  (see Genesis 22:14; Exodus 6:3; 17:15; Judges 6:24; Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 12:2; 26:4).  While some modern translations have gone against this convention (notably the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible which, following the prevailing view of biblical scholarship, renders the name as “Yahweh”), most follow the KJV and use LORD in all capitals to represent the holy Name.

The Revised Standard Version (1952) is so called because it was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881.  This revision of the ASV was undertaken by a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the bodies that led to the National  Council of Churches).  The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other”  (from the preface to the RSV).

In the RSV, Ps 23:6 reads exactly as it does in the KJV.  However, there are several translator’s notes, recognizing other (and in some cases, better) possibilities for translating the Hebrew: “surely” could also be read as “only” (the Hebrew ‘aoften has that meaning), “mercy” could also be read as “kindness” (a much better rendering of the Hebrew word khesed; better still would be “steadfast love” or “loyalty”), and “for ever” could also be read as “as long as I live” (again, much better; the Hebrew literally means “for length of days”).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee, formed by the National Council of Churches, chaired by Bruce Metzger.  One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith.  So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man” (see the post from May 11, 2013, “Women in the Bible”).  The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not an accurate translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities (again, see “Women in the Bible”).

But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  The NRSV translators have paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the footnotes), making this, in my view, the best scholarly translation of the Bible available, especially for the Old Testament.

For example: in 1 Samuel 11, the story of Nahash the Ammonite has always seemed very strange: who is this man?  Why is he laying siege to Jabesh-Gilead, a city far to the north of Ammon?  Most of all, why, when the people of the city offer to surrender, does he instead insist, “’I will make a treaty with you on one condition: that everyone’s right eye be gouged out! . . . That’s how I bring humiliation on all Israel.’” (1 Samuel 11:2, CEB).  Scholars had long known that the Jewish historian Josephus had a longer story about Nahash in Antiquities VI.5.1, but they did not know if that story had any ancient basis in a biblical text.

With the publication of a fragmentary text from Cave 4 at Qumran (called 4QSam a), we now know that this story was part of the text of Samuel: a paragraph that fell out of the text in the course of its copying and recopying over generations.  The NRSV of the end of 1 Samuel 10 reads:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead.

The translators’ footnote on this addition says (my explanations are in brackets), “Q Ms [referring to the manuscripts from Qumran] Compare Josephus, Antiquities VI.v.1 (68–71): MT [for “Masoretic text,” the Hebrew text on which our Old Testament is based] lacks Now Nahash . . . entered Jabesh-gilead.”  

In the NRSV, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

Clearly, this is very similar to the RSV for this passage, with the same footnotes, except for the last phrase, which has now been more accurately rendered, and where the footnote observes the literal meaning of the Hebrew, “for length of days.”

I recommend the NRSV for serious study, and especially the HarperCollins Study Bible,  edited by Harold W. Attridge. This edition of the NRSV has lots of maps, charts, and other helps, but the best part is the extended introductions 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.  These introductions and footnotes are written by scholars doing cutting-edge research in the books on which they comment.  In fact, in some cases, the author of the notes is the person primarily responsible for the translation of the book in question (for example, S. Dean McBride in Deuteronomy), so that you can get straight from the horse’s mouth the reasons behind the choices made.

The problem with the NRSV is that it can be hard to read.  Often, the language clanks and clatters–clearly, the work of scholars rather than poets!  Further, the NRSV assumes a college-age reading level, a major barrier to many readers.  Finally, while the NRSV, and the HarperCollins Study Bible in particular, are excellent for academic work, they are harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.

Next time, we will consider some other popular translations, comparing them to the NRSV in particular.

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy salutes the recent graduates from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Look out, church–they are a great batch, filled with the Spirit and raring to go!

 

May
2013

Which Bible?

When I was a child, the question of which Bible I should read never arose.  So far as I knew, there was only one Bible: the King James Version.  I still hear in the back of my head the language of the King James in deeply familiar texts, and those passages which I have memorized are, as likely as not, recalled from this version.

Certainly, this common reference point had many advantages.  English-speaking Christians (or at least, English-speaking Protestants!) all had and used the same Bible, so when I heard a preacher read or quote from Scripture, what he (and yes, in those days it was nearly always a “he”) said matched what I saw on the pages of my own Bible.

Of course, that is not so today!  Go to any bookstore, and you will find dozens of different Bibles–not just different in binding or study notes, but different in content.  How could that be?

We know, of course, that the Bible was not written in English.  The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, was written in Hebrew, primarily–the language of ancient Israel.  Some parts, however, are written in another ancient language commonly used in the ancient Middle East: two words from Genesis 31:47, one verse from Jeremiah (10:11); the middle chapters of Daniel (2:4b–7:28); and some ancient documents cited in Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) are written in Aramaic, the language of commerce and diplomacy in the ancient world, particularly in the Persian Period (539-333 BC).

The conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC) spread Greek language and culture throughout the ancient Middle East.  In the first and second centuries AD, when the books of our New Testament were written, Greek was the language used when cultures met, particularly for trade; as a result, nearly everyone spoke at least some Greek, in addition to their native language.

The Septuagint, a translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek, was written in the second and first centuries BC, in Egypt.  The New Testament too was written in Greek–not the Greek of the poets and philosophers, but koine, or common, Greek: what we might call street Greek!  In first-century Palestine, the native language was Aramaic (not, intriguingly, Hebrew, which had become the language of the synagogue and of scholars rather than the everyday language of the people), and there are some words and phrases of that language preserved in the New Testament as well.  When Scripture was read aloud in synagogue, the reading would be followed by a Targum: a translation of the passage into Aramaic.  In time, these too were written down and circulated among the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community.

Christians also translated the Bible into their native languages.  The Vulgate, for example, put the Bible into the common or “vulgar” language of the Roman Empire, Latin.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was translated in 1611; it has just celebrated its 400th birthday!  We can scarcely overstate the importance of this translation for English language and culture.  Together with the plays of Shakespeare, the KJV helped standardize rules for English spelling and usage, and gave English its basic, common vocabulary.

However, the English language has changed a lot since 1611.  Not only are the “thees” and “thous” gone, but the meaning of some words has changed.  For example, the KJV of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous Love Chapter, reads “charity” rather than “love” for the Greek agape: appropriate then, but misleading now, when “charity” has taken on a more narrow and restricted meaning.  A more jarring is example is Mark 10:14, which in the KJV reads, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”!  Jesus meant, of course, that the disciples should allow the children to come; “suffer” no longer means all that it did in 1611.

Further, we know more about language and translation than we did in 1611, and translators today have access to far more texts than they did (including, for many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Dead Sea discoveries).  One of many places where this makes a difference is 1 John 5:6-8.  Here, the author of 1 John, referring to Jewish law requiring two or three witnesses for conviction (see Deuteronomy 17:6), declares that the testimony concerning Jesus is confirmed by three witnesses: the Spirit of God, the water (likely a reference to Jesus’ birth) and the blood (Jesus’ death on the cross).  The KJV of 1 John 5:7-8 reads, however, “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.”  This reference to the Trinity is not found in any Greek text of 1 John from before the 16th century, though it does appear in late texts of the Latin Vulgate.  Almost certainly, this sentence does not belong to 1 John, but rather reflects later Christian reflection on the text.

It was for these reasons and more that Christians saw the need for new translations of the Bible into English.  Next week, we will look at several English translations of the Bible, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.