Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Generous Charis

I grew up hearing and reading the Bible during the transition from KJV to NASB and NIV. In my church setting, the transition was mostly welcomed, except by a few pious old-timers who were certain that our prayers were more acceptable to God if they included a generous portion of thees, thous, and Elizabethan-era verb endings.

The KJV had the interesting effect of making some very ordinary words into technical religious terms, since the words dropped out of ordinary use in the centuries since the KJV was translated. One of those words is "grace." Interestingly, the NASB, the NIV, and even (often) the NLT continue to use this word to translate the Greek word charis, even though the meaning of "grace" in English has changed over the centuries.

In modern English, "grace" primarily means something like beauty, charm, or refinement - a meaning that rarely fits what the NT authors meant by charis. Of course, Christians usually learn to fill in a technical religious meaning for the word grace, but charis in Greek did not have a uniquely religious meaning.

Charis has a variety of meanings depending on the context (like all words), but in the sorts of passages where it is translated "grace," it normally means something like "generosity" or "generous gift" (the same meaning it had in English when the KJV was translated). As I have been reading the NT recently, I have been translating charis with "generosity" or "generous gift" wherever such a translation works. Look at some of the passages:

Eph 2:8-9 For by [God's] generosity you have been saved... it is the gift of God.
Gal 1:3 Generosity and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Phil 1:7 It is only right for me to feel this way about you... since you all are partakers with me of [God's] generosity.
1 Cor 15:10 But by the generosity of God I am what I am [that is, an apostle]; and his generosity towards me was not wasted, but I labored more than all of them; yet not I, but God's generous gift which was with me.

There are some other passages where "generosity" seems to be a less fit translation, expecially in Romans. I haven't yet checked what the standard references (BDAG, NIDNTT, EDNT, TDNT, etc.) have to say on this, but it seems that charis is used in these passages to describe God's generous forgiveness. For example:

Rom 5:20 The Law came in so that transgression might increase; but where sin increased, [God's] generosity overflowed even more.
Rom 3:24 ... being justified freely by his generous gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

Although this started for me as a thought experiment in translation, it has resulted in a great deal of thought about God's generosity. It is striking that Christ's life and death on our behalf is described as a generous gift to us. Paul's calling as an apostle, and our calling to serve in the church today, is a generous gift. Paul chose to start most of his letters with a prayer for God's generosity and peace. I do not think often enough of God as a generous God, a gift-giving God, a God who is characterized by his beneficence. Yet he is.

Charis to you and peace from our generous God in 2009.

The picture: An altar piece, ca. 1260, by an unknown German master. The middle panel is a gnadenstuhle or "Pillar of Grace," a common way of depicting the Trinity. The side panels depict Mary and John.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

All Things Are Better in Koine

"All Things Are Better in Koine"

A video by some Biola students. Music written and recorded by Derek North, video produced by Nick Casucci. The profs in the video are Scott Yoshikawa, one of my former Talbot classmates, and Mickey Klink.

Here are some of the lyrics that may be a little obscure to non-Greek students:

K to the O-I-N to the E [KOINE]

D.W. bringing the Bs [Daniel Wallace, author of Beyond the Basics of Biblical Greek, commonly abbreviated as BBBG]

I'm busting out like Daniel Wallace / Watch me parse my verbs cuz my Greek is flawless.

legomai ego [common joke in Greek classes - means "I say" or perhaps "I say to myself" in Greek]

ti legeis en koine [= "what do you say in Koine?"]

The video mentions two evangelical NT scholars, D.A. Carson (prof at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Daniel Wallace (prof at Dallas Theological Seminary). I wonder if either of them ever suspected that they would one day be the admired objects of a rap video? I think that's my new goal in life.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Salvation in Luke's Christmas (Luke 1, Luke 2)

This weekend, I will be giving the sermons at my church, Hope Chapel West Oahu. For the three weeks before Christmas, we are (very roughly) following the outline of Rick Warren's new book, The Purpose of Christmas. This week, the sermon title is Christmas is a Time for Salvation, and I will be preaching mainly from Luke 1-2. As I studied, I was impressed with the amount of references to salvation in Luke's birth narrative.

Notice these lines from Mary, Zechariah, the angel, Simeon and Anna:
  • And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47)
  • His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— (Luke 1:67-71)
  • to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:74-75)
  • And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins… (Luke 1:76-77)
  • But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
  • And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him... Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:25, 28-30)
  • At that very moment [Anna] came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Salvation is a central theme in Luke's story of the birth of Jesus. Jesus is the "horn of salvation" and even salvation itself - and of course, Jesus' name means "salvation."

Zechariah talked about both salvation from enemies and from sin. In most of the NT, the emphasis is on deliverance from sin - in fact, sin is the enemy from which Jesus delivers us. The salvation that Jesus brings is also salvation to something - Zechariah rejoices that we are saved "to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness." This is good to remember today - the message of salvation is not only deliverance from sin and its consequences but deliverance to a life of positive righteousness and usefulness to God.

Here, at the beginning of Luke, the emphasis is on salvation for Israel: "redeemed his people," "redemption of Jerusalem," "consolation of Israel." The angel's message is "good news for all the people" - but "people" (laos in Greek) refers to the nation of Israel, not the whole world. Luke doesn't leave out Gentiles (Jesus is "a light to the Gentiles," according to Simeon), but he downplays them at the beginning of his gospel. Luke raises the profile of Gentiles slowly in his story, culminating with his focus on Paul's mission to the Gentiles in the second half of Acts.

The picture: The Nativity, by Martin Schongauer, 1470s.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas in November?

In honor of the Christmas season, I am re-posting the following article on the date of Jesus' birth.

I just came across an excellent article about the date of Jesus' birth by Paul Meier, a prominent New Testament scholar. Since it is rather long and technical, I will summarize it here.

We celebrate Jesus' birthday on December 25, but it is quite unlikely that he was born on that day. That date was picked out in the fourth century, most likely as a replacement celebration for the winter solstice or other pagan holidays.

Paul Meier suggests a birthday in November. This is based on two pieces of data. First, Luke's nativity story begins with the account of Zachariah's service in the Temple at the assigned time for his priestly division (Abijah). A few weeks later, his wife conceives; six months later, Mary conceives; nine months after that, Jesus is born. Since Zachariah's priestly division served in late July to early August (according to some educated guesswork based on early rabbinic documents), Jesus would have been born in November.

By itself, that would not be very strong evidence. However, that date is backed up by the very earliest reference to Jesus' birth date. Clement of Alexandria, one of the church fathers, wrote in AD 194 that Jesus was born 194 years, one month, and 13 days before the murder of emperor Commodus - a significant event that occurred on December 31, AD 192. (By the way, Commodus is the same emperor fictionally depicted in the movie Gladiator). Although Clement seemed to get the year wrong, he may well have had the correct day - November 18.

Many people already know that Jesus was, ironically, born BC. The sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus, inventor of our BC / AD system, made two errors. First, he was off by about four to seven years; and second, he forgot to include a year zero. Our calendar goes directly from 1 BC to AD 1, which throws off computations.

How do we calculate the correct year? Herod the Great, who figures prominently in Matthew's birth account, died in March of 4 BC (a date pinned down by a lunar eclipse recorded in Josephus' history). Jesus must have been born before then. He may have been born as early as 7 BC, but several details suggest that 5 BC is the most likely year. If so, Herod died only four months after his attempt on Jesus' life.

So Jesus' birthday, by Paul Meier's cautious estimate, is November 18, 5 BC. Any one planning on moving your Christmas celebration to before Thanksgiving? If you do so this year, be sure to put 2012 candles on the cake (AD 2008 + 5 BC - 1 for Dionysius' mistake).

In the end, the day or even the year of Jesus' birth is not certain, like the birthdates of most other ancient people. Nor is that date terribly important. But it reminds us that Jesus is a real historical person; his life can be investigated using the normal methods of historical inquiry. He is not merely a convenient, timeless myth or an artificial object of faith.

The picture: the Adoration of the Magi, from The Brick Bible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Agape / Phileo (again)

In some earlier posts, I wrote on the common belief that agape and phileo have different meanings, especially in John 21. To help people understand this better, I developed the following quiz. For each of the following verses, see if you can guess whether the Greek word for love is agape or phileo. I'll give the answers at the bottom.

  1. Mt 10:37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me."
  2. Luke 20:46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets."
  3. Jn 5:20 “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing."
  4. Jn 11:3 So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”
  5. Jn 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal."
  6. Jn 16:27 "for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father."
  7. John 20:2 So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb..."
  8. 1 Cor 16:22 If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed.
  9. Titus 3:15 All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love us in the faith.
  10. Rev 3:19 "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent."

To get the answer key, use your mouse to highlight the apparently blank lines below.

All of of the sentences use phileo in Greek. None use agape. Sneaky, huh?

So what's the point? If agape means divine, unconditional, higher love, and phileo means only friendly affection (the usual explanation given), then anyone reading Bible verses with the English word "love" ought to be able to guess which Greek word it was translating. But as you can see, several of the above sentences describe a higher love, and some describe a defective love - but all use the same Greek word, phileo. I could have done the same thing with agape - give you multiple verses, some obviously about higher love, and others about defective love, but all translating agape. The two words, as you can see, have about the same range of meanings. For more on this, read my earlier posts on agape / phileo.