Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why It's OK to Have a Christmas Tree

At least three times in the last year, I have heard from Christians who are concerned that they shouldn't have a Christmas tree, or maybe shouldn't celebrate Christmas, because many Christmas customs are adopted from pagan customs. Some Christians worry that the date of Christmas was picked to replace pagan holidays such as Saturnalia (likely true), that the Christmas tree came from pagan rituals (uncertain, but possible), or that the star on the tree comes from star worship (not too likely, in my opinion).

To answer this concern, let me ask a very different question: is it OK for Christians to use the names for the days of the week and the months? The days of the week honor Norse gods: Sun day, Moon day, Tiw's day, Odin's day, Thor's day, Freya's day, Saturn day. Some of the months honor Greek and Roman gods (Janus, Mars, Aphrodite, Maia, Juno) while others honor deified Roman emperors (Julius, Augustus). But no one seems to have a problem with this, for a very good reason: when Christians say "Thursday," they are not worshipping Thor, and no one else thinks they are, either. The Bible prohibits idolatry, but idolatry consists of worshipping other gods. Worship is not something that one does unintentionally; it's a matter of the heart.

This is why it's OK to have a Christmas tree, give gifts, put a star on your tree, and celebrate Jesus' birth on December 25 (even if he wasn't born then). When I erect a Christmas tree, none of my neighbors thinks I am worshipping some old druid god, and I certainly have no intent to worship anything. In fact, to genuine pagans, my devout observance of Christmas in honor of Jesus is a testimony to my faith in Christ, not my worship of any other god.

Symbols and words are not permanently tainted merely because they are used by another religion ("I know and am convinced in the Lord that nothing is unclean in itself..." says Paul in Rom 14:14, referring to meat sacrificed to idols). Cults misuse baptism and the Lord's Supper, but that does not mean we should no longer baptize or share in communion. When Solomon built the first temple for God in the Old Testament, there had already been pagan temples for at least two thousand years. The design of Solomon's temple even had some similarities to Egyptian temples. The fact that temples were used by other religions did not make it wrong to build a temple to God or to use the temple as a metaphor for God's people. There are lots of other examples in the Bible of using (or redeeming) terms and symbols from the pagan world. Paul quotes the poem "A Hymn to Zeus" in Acts 17:28. While astrology and the worship of stars is condemned in the Bible, stars are repeatedly used as symbols of Jesus, Israel, and the church - so it is OK for you to put a star on your Christmas tree.

Finally, celebrating Christmas is allowable because the Scripture gives us personal freedom in such matters. In 1 Cor 8-10, Paul tells Christians not to participate in idol feasts, because idol feasts involved acts of worship to other gods, and everyone knew such feasts were designed to honor other gods. But in 1 Cor 10:25-33, Paul says that Christians can eat meat that was sold in an idol market, because it is not an act of worship, and the meat is not permanently tainted. Paul also says that Christians have freedom to celebrate religious holidays or not according to their own conscience, and even warns us not to condemn others for their decisions in these areas of freedom (Rom 14:1-14, Col 2:16-17). The Bible forbids worship of other gods - but celebrating Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree does not constitute worship, especially when we do it in honor of Jesus.

"Do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking [or celebrating Christmas or not!], but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:16-17). The Christian life is primarily about living out the virtues of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. If Christmas is a good thing for you that leads you to think about Jesus, then enjoy it - but more importantly, make sure that your Christian life is primarily about things that really matter, not minor quibbles about Christmas.

The picture: The Nativity, by an unknown Ottonian, ca. 1025-1050.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Real Saint Nicholas (re-post)

It's hard being a professor's kid. When my kids ask me if Santa Claus is real, I answer, "Of course. Here's his picture." And I show them this picture of the actual St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (AD 280-346), historical basis of the Santa Claus legend (take off the "ni" from his name and you can see how we got "Claus").

The photo is a reconstruction from Nicholas' skull, made by a forensic anthropologist. Nicholas was briefly disinterred in the 50s, and high-quality photographs of his remains were eventually used to create a 3-D image of his face. Nicholas was Greek, so his complexion is a little more olive than the rosiness of modern Santa Claus.

Nicholas had a broken nose, which may be related to accounts that he was imprisoned and tortured during Diocletian's persecution of Christians in AD 303. Like most other bishops of his time, he was present at the Nicene Council (AD 325).

There are all sorts of interesting stories about St. Nicholas: he gave dowries to poor girls to save them from prostitution; he appealed on behalf of unjustly condemned men; and my personal favorite: he slapped the heretic Arius in the face at the Nicene Council.

Of course, you should probably take all of this with at least a little grain of salt, since legends tend to accumulate around saints and their remains - but I think I like Nicholas of Myra better than the fat man at the North Pole!

As good old St. Nick would say, Kala Christougenna!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Evangelical Theological Society, Day 3

Final day of ETS! Here are the highlights:
  • Found a good sushi place today - best I've had since leaving Hawaii. Funny - they had a health warning posted about eating raw fish.
  • The best part of being at these conferences, as everyone agrees, is spending time with people. I have enjoyed having coffee or meals with former students, former professors, and colleagues who teach all over the country. Kind of strange - I am only (ha!) 42, but I think I have at least 7 or 8 former students who are now professors.
  • NT Wright gave a really good lecture near the end of ETS yesterday, and Tom Schreiner and Frank Thielman responded to him. They covered lots of ground, but several things impressed me. 1) All three were models of Christian civility, even in their disagreements with each other - something sometimes lacking in this debate. They emphasized their points of agreement (e.g. substitutionary atonement, Christ as the heart of the gospel, and others), and did not overstate their areas of disagreement. Wright was rather pointed as he addressed the crowd, asking them not to quote him out of context or allow false rumors about him to spread (he has taken a lot of heat, some of it quite unfair, in books and especially blogs). 2) Wright agrees that Paul teaches that sin and guilt transfer to Jesus (substitutionary atonement) but he doesn't think that Paul teaches that righteousness transfers to the believer (imputation of righteousness). However, I was surprised to hear him admit that there might be space for imputation as a trajectory in Paul's thought stemming from union with Christ. 3) I found myself persuaded by Wright's reading of the larger narrative of salvation (you can read his work on this, but it emphasizes the roles of Adam, Abraham, Israel and Jesus in God's plan), but in general I am still unpersuaded by how he reads it into particular passages in Romans and Galatians. 4) Wright is sometimes viewed as overemphasizing the role of works in justification, but in the conversation between the three, it became apparent that this difference might be more semantic than real. All three (along with most Paul scholars) recognize that Paul repeatedly emphasizes that we will be judged for our works, but that our justification rests solely on faith in Christ and his work.
  • Craig Keener discussed his new book on the historical Jesus. Lots of good stuff (about 800 pages), but in the presentation, he emphasized 1) Studies of ancient biographies show that biographers were relatively bound by their available data despite authorial purposes and biases. He showed how the three biographers Suetonius, Tacitus and Plutarch all had significant overlap in the details of their account of the Roman emperor Otho. Keener suggests this should affect our view of the biographies of Jesus (the gospels). 2) Studies of memorization prove that both ancient and modern cultures regularly preserve vast amount of information by memory alone, and that very little changes in the memorized material over generations. The first of the gospels was written within 40 years of the events, and relies on even earlier memorized material, demonstrating that there is no reason to believe that lots of extraneous material crept into the memorized data about Jesus.
  • On Friday night, I went to the Institute for Biblical Research. This year, they started giving away the traditional free book to members only, so it looks like I finally need to apply for membership! NT Wright was again the speaker. I won't try to summarize his paper here; its content about Jesus' message of the kingdom might be revolutionary in many of our churches (which was his point), but is almost commonplace among evangelical gospels scholars. Still, Wright managed to present it in a compelling and even entertaining manner. Ditto for his respondent, Michael Bird. 
  • Favorite quote/anecdote of the week: Tom Wright told about being stuck in traffic in London. The cabby saw his clerical collar (Wright was a bishop until recently) and said (imagine a good Cockney accent) "You anglican bishops are having quite a row over women bishops, aren't you?" Wright agreed. The cabby weighed in, "Well, the way I figure it, if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the rest is all rock'n'roll, i'n't it?" Wright said that quote became the main text of his next Easter sermon.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evangelical Theological Society, Day 2

So here are the highlights of day two of the conference:
  • I had grits for breakfast. Of course, this obligated me to quote Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny to my friends: "Sure I've heard of grits. I just never actually seen a grit" and "How could it take you five minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit-eating world twenty minutes?"
  • Celebrity Alert: I saw Darrel Bock going down the escalator. I have it on good authority that some of his friends call him "Dome of the Bock" because of his vast forehead. This, of course, in contrast to my own thick, wavy hair.
  • Christian Book Industry Bailout Alert: I haven't bought any more books today, but it will be hard to avoid if I go back into the exhibit hall.
  • Last night's plenary session (for some reason, half the people say plee-nary and half say plenary, but that's not important right now): Tom Schreiner gave a brilliant lecture responding to Wright's view of justification. It was incredibly well-organized, strongly argued, and very gracious. Schreiner's basic points: 1) Wright is a gifted scholar who has contributed immensely to NT scholarship, but his view on justification needs correcting. 2) Wright thinks justification is fundamentally about ecclesiology (the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God), but Schreiner showed that the terms related to justification are constantly used in soteriological passages to communicate the granting of right moral standing. 3) Wright doesn't believe in imputation of righteousness, but Schreiner worked through several texts showing that Paul taught it. 4) Wright believes that "works of the Law" refers not to all Law-keeping, but to the use of certain laws (circumcision, diet, and holy days) as Jewish boundary markers. Schreiner showed numerous passages in Paul where this definition just cannot work. (I probably missed something there, but you can read Schreiner's paper in a few months). Looking forward to hearing Wright speak tomorrow.
  • Danny Hays presented a paper this morning on how the story of the Ethiopian eunuch's conversion (Acts 8) alludes to the story of another Ethiopian eunuch in Jeremiah 38-39. I was interested in this story because of a project I am working on about allusions to the OT in Luke-Acts. I had noticed the reference to Jeremiah, but could not figure out what Luke was doing with it. Hays had a great explanation. Hays spent several years in Ethiopia, and has an interest in Africans in the Bible (he's also co-author of a great undergrad hermeneutics textbook).
  • Nicholas Piotrowski presented a paper on an allusion to Ezekiel 36 in Matthew 1:21. Among other interesting claims, Piotrowski suggests that the Ezekiel allusion contributes to an "end of Exile" theme in Matthew; that is, some Israelites viewed themselves as still in the Exile, and Jesus ended that.
  • You can see by my choice of lectures that one of my special interests is how the New Testament uses the Old Testament.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Evangelical Theological Society, Day 1

So here I am, at theological nerdvana again. This year, three or four thousand scholars from around the country have converged on Atlanta, and all of them were trying to get on the same elevator at dinner time. But besides that, I'm having a wonderful time. There were probably a hundred lectures today, but I made it to about five. Here are today's highlights:
  • I helped keep the Christian academic book industry afloat by buying two books, The Heresy of Orthodoxy and Keep Your Greek. I bought the second book primarily because of the title of ch. 2: "Burn Your Interlinear: The interlinear is a tool of the devil, designed to make preachers stupid." Amen!
  • Celebrity Alert: I met Bill Mounce while signing in at the hotel.
  • Another Celebrity Alert: While I was glancing over Wayne Grudem's new book on politics and Christianity, Grudem walked by and said "Buy it! Buy it!" I bet he didn't know he would be quoted.
  • I just listened to my friend Ken Berding present a very good paper arguing that the proper translation of Rom 8:27 should be "and [the Spirit] who searches hearts knows the [believer's] mind set on the Spirit, because he intercedes for the saints according to God's purposes" instead of the traditional translation: "and [God] who searches hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the saints according to God's purposes."
  • Darrel Bock, Gordon Johnston and Herb Bateman gave a presentation of their book, Jesus the Messiah. It covers how OT messianic texts were understood when they were first written, how they were understood by readers in Second Temple Judaism, and how they were understood by the authors of tne New Testament. Bock used the imagery of a puzzle: OT passages that contained limited information about the Messiah, or only hinted at the Messiah, are the separate puzzle pieces. Jesus put the pieces together in ways that were not anticipated by many before him.
  • A student, Jonathan E. Parnell, gave a good presentation of how Piper and Wright differ in how they read the Bible, resulting in different views. Wright emphasizes (overemphasizes, according to the presenter) the Jewish conceptual framework, allowing it to be more significant than the text itself, while Piper uses background information, but allows the text to dominate. One respondent pointed out that Piper allows broader theological concepts to dominate over the text.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Not this... but that. (Ephesians 4-5)

This morning, I was paying attention to the string of contrasts in Ephesians 4 and 5. Each of them explains the first contrast, found in Eph 4:22-24: lay aside the old self... put on the new self.

not falsehood... but truth
don't steal... but work so you can be generous
don't use rotten words... but give gracious, edifying words
not bitterness, anger... but kindness, compassion, forgiveness
don't be unwise... but wise
don't be foolish, but understand the will of the Lord
don't get drunk, but be filled with the Spirit

For several of the contrasts, Paul explains a little more of what he means. For example, being "filled with the Spirit" in Eph 5:18 is explained in the rest of the sentence (found in vv. 19-21): "speaking to one another in psalms... giving thanks... submitting to one another..."

When Paul says "understand the will of the Lord" (Eph 5:17), it's easy to misunderstand him. Usually, Christians use that sort of language to refer to big decisions like what job to take, whom to marry, or what church to attend. But for Paul, "the will of the Lord" is the opposite of the items in the first column, and it is like the items in the second column. So "the will of the Lord" is not lying, stealing, rotten words, foolishness or getting drunk, and it includes truthfulness, generosity, gracious words, kindness, and wisdom.

What I like about this is that it makes "the will of the Lord" something that is within reach. The will of the Lord is not this... but that. God's will is not about which job or church I pick, but about rejecting my "former conduct" and putting on the new self (Eph 4:22-24). I can be certain that I am "in God's will" when I am being kind, forgiving, wise, thankful, and worshipful, regardless of whatever "big decisions" I may be struggling with.

The picture: a depiction of the book of Ephesians, from Biblia ectypa: Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrift (an illustrated Bible) by Christoph Weigel, 1695. Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Erasmus on Interpretation

"For there are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply and, if we try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable majesty of divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind."

-Erasmus of Rotterdam, preface to On the Freedom of the Will, 1524.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jesus in Context

"If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted." Found in a nice article by N.T. Wright about C.S. Lewis (thanks to euangelion for pointing it out).

If you already like Wright, you will enjoy this article. If you are skeptical about some of Wright's ideas (as I am), you will see a bit of Wright's admirable heart and observe that he is quite a bit like Lewis.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Vacation Pictures

You can take a look at our family vacation pictures here and our day at Sequoia National Park here.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Jesus Was Not a Rebel

When I say that Jesus was not a rebel, I mean that he was not a rebel in the way that most modern or post-modern Americans define rebel. When I hear or read a claim that Jesus was a rebel, it usually implies the following definition:

A rebel opposes authority simply because it is authority. A rebel flaunts traditions simply because they are traditions.

People who view Jesus as this sort of rebel emphasize that he publicly broke Sabbath traditions and consorted with outsiders such as tax collectors and prostitutes. But does this sort of rebel image really fit Jesus? As I read the Gospels, it seems clear to me that Jesus was not opposed to all authority or all tradition. Rather, he sought to overthrow one sort of authority and replace it with another. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) carefully - Jesus rejects the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, but he replaces it with his own authority and the authority of the Torah. Jesus was not opposed to all traditions, but only to those traditions that prevented genuine obedience to the even older tradition of the Law.

Why does this matter? Because it seems to me that a certain class of Christian routinely skewers authority and traditions and uses the excuse that Jesus was a rebel. Before we begin to flaunt Christian traditions by swearing or smoking pot (for example), we need to ask if that sort of rebellion is really anything like what Jesus did. Jesus broke bad rules and replaced them with "greater righteousness" based on love for God and neighbor.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Mark of the Beast is Islam? Walid Shoebat and 666

Walid Shoebat, a prophecy speaker, was in Hawaii last week teaching at a few churches. He made some interesting claims (found in this video) about the meaning of the "number of the beast" in Rev 13:18. A few people asked me to comment on the validity of this claim.

Here's Shoebat's basic claim: When John wrote about the famous "number of the beast" in Rev 13:18, he actually wrote in a Muslim symbol and an Arabic phrase, not a Greek number. Shoebat said he discovered this by looking at the symbol for 666 in the 4th-century manuscript Vaticanus. When he turned the letters sideways, he saw the crossed swords of Islam and the Arabic phrase bismillah, meaning "in the name of Allah."

There are multiple problems with this claim.

1) It is yet one more example of our obsession with 666 and the Antichrist. Every few years, some radio prophecy teacher makes another claim that they have identified who the Antichrist is - Ronald Reagan, the Pope, Prince Charles, Barack Obama. Frank Fasi is my favorite candidate (initials FFF, and F is the 6th letter of the alphabet). It is difficult to take these claims seriously, especially when they are not based on the way numbers worked in the first century.

2) John tells us four times that he is referring to a number: "the number of his name... calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man, and his number is 666." We need to listen to the author: if he says that 666 is a number, then we should agree that it is a number, not an Arabic phrase.

3) Shoebat says that he found the symbols in the 4th century manuscript Codex Vaticanus. This is incorrect. Codex Vaticanus is from the 4th century, but it is missing the book of Revelation and several other books due to damage. A 15th century manuscript was added in to the end of Vaticanus to replace the missing material. This is very important, because it means that the supposed Arabic phrase is not found in the earliest manuscripts of Revelation, but only one late medieval manuscript.

4) Anyone who spends much time reading Greek manuscripts can recognize that the symbol in the picture is indeed the Greek number 666. Greek did not have separate symbols for numbers, so it used letters. In this case, χξς (chi xi stigma) is one of the standard ways to write 666 (chi = 600, xi = 60, stigma = 6).

5) The scribe who wrote this particular manuscript followed a pattern that proves that he was writing a number. Like other scribes, he put a bar above the letters to indicate that they were functioning as numbers. He also switched his "font" - he wrote all of his normal text in the more ancient majuscule font (all caps, essentially), and all his numbers in the later minuscule font (lower-case, kind of like cursive). This miniscule script was not even used until the 5th century, so there is no way that John would have used it in his original. In the script used in the first century, John would have written it something like this:

This is the way the number appears in p47, the oldest manuscript of Revelation. Notice that this standard ancient way of writing the number does not work for Shoebat's claim.

This is what the number looks like in another early manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus. The entire number is written out as a word (ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ, hexakosioi hexekonta hex), like writing six hundred sixty six instead of 666.

So Shoebat is basing his idea on a manuscript written 1400 years after Revelation, in a style of script that didn't exist until 400 years after Revelation.

6) In order for his theory to work, each letter has to be turned sideways, and the bar that symbolizes "number" also has to be turned sideways and read as an Arabic letter. The bar also has to be arbitrarily placed third from left, since it is actually a bar above all three letters. It is almost impossible to believe that John wrote intentionally in Arabic in a Greek manuscript, then turned each letter sideways, moved one letter above the other three, altered each to look more like Greek letters in a script that would not yet exist for four centuries, called them numbers, then expected people to figure it out. Even if it were possible, Shoebat has only given us evidence (sort of) that a 15th-century scribe did this, not that John did it.

7) All early interpreters of Revelation thought it was a number. Some scribes wrote out the whole number, and others commented on the symbolic nature of the number.

8) Most scholars of Revelation (i.e. professors and authors of scholarly books on Revelation) believe that 666 is an example of gematria, the ancient system of calculating the numerical value of a person's name. Shoebat opposes the gematriacal interpretation because he says gematria was used in witchcraft. But this is not a good reason to reject gematria in the Bible. Although gematria was used in later times in magical incantations, so have many other things, such as the name of God, Jesus, and the angels of the Old Testament. In general, gematria in the first century and earlier was more of a word game, and not associated with magic.

Shoebat also opposes using gematria because, he says, "God is not the author of mysteries." This is also not a good objection. Revelation is filled with mysterious symbols, and it uses the word mystery four times. Shoebat's interpretation is much more mysterious than many others! And actually, gematria was not that mysterious. Since every Greek and Hebrew letter was equivalent to a number, any one who spoke those languages in the ancient world could calculate "the number of their name" (gematria) without effort.

The standard ancient interpretation still holds up well: 666 is the number of Nero's name. Other details in Revelation also point to Nero. John is thus saying that the final evil leader will be someone much like Nero (who was already dead when John wrote). This evil leader will persecute Christians, conquer nations, call for worship of himself, and not follow even his own ancestral religion.

Even if one rejects the standard ancient interpretation, Shoebat has not given any real evidence for his claim. The particular way that a 15th-century scribe wrote the number tells us nothing about how John wrote the number.

It's important to remember that 1 John says that there are many antichrists (1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3): anyone who opposes the truth about Jesus is an antichrist. In that sense, many empires throughout history have been "antichrist" and Islam is sometimes "antichrist" when it suppresses the Christian message and persecutes Christians. But Rev 13:18 does not tell us that Islam is the antichrist.

Manning Kids

A sample of recent sayings and conversations from the Manning kids:
Andrew and Elizabeth (5), pretending to be superheroes:
Andrew: My guy is kinda like Iron Man, but he shoots lava out of his hands, like this: WHOOSH! BAM!
Elizabeth: My superhero is like Iron Man too, but her helmet covers up her hair so bad guys can't tell she's a girl. And she wears a skirt that comes down to here, and boots that come up to here.

Peter (6), warning his siblings against entering his fort: Avandish hope, all he who enter here!

Caleb (7), watching cool reflected lights: Wow! It's so exciting! It's like one of those dinko parties!
Me: Like what?
Caleb: You know, with the ball with mirrors on it.
Me: You mean a disco ball?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Speaking the Truth in Love (Ephesians 4:15)

It's common for Christians to quote Ephesians 4:15, "speaking the truth in love" when they talk about the need to make damaged relationships right, or when they need to address the sin of an erring brother or sister. People usually use the phrase to mean that when we deal with conflict or address sin, we should do so lovingly. That is certainly good advice! But I don't think that was what Paul was talking about.

First, the context. This phrase is found in a paragraph about causing the church to grow into christlike maturity (4:13-17). The result of this maturity is that the believers are no longer deceived by every teaching that comes along (4:14). In contrast, we are to "speak the truth" and thus continue to grow to be like Christ (4:15-17). So what Paul is talking about here is a contrast between a church that accepts all sorts of false teaching and one that speaks the truth. In other words, Paul is talking about teaching the Truth out of love so that Christians will become more like Jesus.

This interpretation, that Paul is talking about right teaching, is verified by the meaning of ἀληθεύοντες, "speaking the truth" (one word in Greek, not three). Paul uses the word elsewhere only in Gal 4:16: "Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?" Here, as in Ephesians, "telling the truth" is about teaching the truth.

The NET Bible translates this phrase as "practicing the truth" because the verb is sometimes used in the LXX to imply being true or proving true. However, in determining the meanings of words, we should let near context rule over far context. Eph 4:13-15 contrasts ἀληθεύοντες with false teaching, not with unfaithfulness; and Paul's use of the word in Gal 4:16 is about teaching the truth. It is difficult to follow Paul's train of thought in Eph 4 if he is talking about being faithful or true rather than teaching the truth.

The picture: Eph 4:15 from Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript from AD 350. The first word in the first line is ἀληθεύοντες, speaking the truth.

Monday, May 31, 2010

"Christ who is over all God blessed forever" (Romans 9:5)

One of my students sent me a question about the translation of Romans 9:5 (pictured above in Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript from AD 350).

The phrase in question is ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας. Here are the two possible translations, with some English translations that (more or less) follow this option.

1) Christ according to the flesh who is over all, God blessed forever (or "who is God over all, blessed forever"). KJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, ESV, NET, HCSB, NRSV.
2) Christ according to the flesh. God who is over all [be] blessed forever. RSV, CEV, NAB

Option 1 typically includes a comma, but the comma does not affect the meaning. Option 2 requires a period between κατὰ σάρκα and ὁ ὢν. It is legitimate for translators to insert periods where necessary, since ancient manuscripts used minimal punctuation. But it is important to note that no ancient manuscript inserted a period at that spot. The manuscript above is typical: there are punctuation marks after "promises" from Rom 9:4, and after "amen" in 9:5, but none after "according to the flesh" (line 4, fifth letter in the photo).

In favor of option 2: Although Paul elsewhere makes statements about the deity of Christ, he never does so in these words, equating Χριστὸς (Christ) with θεὸς (God). Elsewhere in the NT, the phrase "over all" and "blessed" (εὐλογητὸς) are used with reference to the Father, not the Son.

In favor of option 1: the phrase ὁ ὢν ("who is") is a participle phrase functioning as an adjective. Everywhere else in the New Testament and in the LXX, this phrase modifies a noun that precedes it. I cannot find any example of ὁ ὢν modifying a noun that follows. That means that ὁ ὢν must modify Christ, not God, resulting in "Christ... who is God." There are a few examples of other adjectival participles (i.e., not εἰμι) modifying a noun that follows, but they are quite rare.

I favor option 1 for three reasons.

  • Translation decisions should rely heavily on original grammar, and the grammatical support for option 1 is much stronger than for option 2.
  • The only real argument for option 2 is that Paul doesn't elsewhere use this kind of language to refer to Christ. But Paul often makes unique statements that have no exact parallel elsewhere in his writings. It is illegitimate to exclude a translation only because "it doesn't sound like Paul." If Paul wants to emphasize that Christ is God, it is only natural that he would use language that he has elsewhere used for God.
  • Option 1 best makes sense of the context. Paul is expressing his anguish that so many of his fellow Israelites, who had the patriarchs, the Scriptures, and Christ himself, have rejected Christ. Paul emphasizes who they are rejecting: Christ who is Jewish in his humanity, but is also God over all, blessed forever.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gospel of John Sinaiticus Mug

A few days ago, when I should have been grading papers, I designed this mug. It has the first two columns of John 1 (split into four columns to fit on the mug) from the fourth-century Greek manuscript Codex Sinaiticus.

Designing the mug was a lot easier than it sounds. I used Zazzle, a website that allows you to easily make personalized mugs, t-shirts, ties, and other stuff. In fact, you can buy this mug on their website. I'm thinking of buying a few to give out for my first-year Greek awards.

And yes, I am now finishing up grading my large stack of papers.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gospel of John Class

For my last course at Pacific Rim Christian College, I will teach a Gospel of John class (my area of specialty) at the beginning of the summer. It will be an intensive course for only two weeks, May 24-June 4, 9:00-1:00 every day. It can be taken as a graduate or undergraduate level course (with different assignments depending on level), or you can audit it for about half price.

It is only a few weeks away, so if you want to take the class, call up the registrar at Pac Rim (853-1040).

The picture: 12th century manuscript (codex 666) of the Gospel of John. The title is in the older majuscule style (all caps), while the text is in miniscule (cursive).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Talbot Bound

If all goes well, I will be headed to Talbot School of Theology (at Biola University) this fall as associate professor of New Testament. After a very rigorous (but enjoyable) interview process, the Talbot faculty committee recommended me for the position to the Biola President and Board. If their approval is granted, we will be moving to Southern California this summer as soon as our house sells. We will really miss Hawaii, and I will miss my students at Pac Rim, but overall we are very excited about the coming changes.

I received my M.Div. from Talbot, and I was an adjunct professor there while I was doing my Ph.D. work at Fuller. I am excited about the prospect of joining a faculty team that I have highly respected since I was a student. We are all looking forward to living near my wife's family. For our younger children, the best thing about the move is that we will live near Disneyland!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter according to Basic Instructions

Ok, it's Easter, and I know I ought to post something either scholarly or pastoral... but I couldn't resist posting this comic about Easter from Scott Meyer's Basic Instructions.

Yes, there is an eerie resemblance between me and the comic's main character, who is also Scott Meyer, the author. But that's mainly because any two bald haole guys with goatees look about the same.

For a fee, Scott Meyer will convert a photo into the kind of art you see in the comic, and my friend Rich bought one for me for my birthday - see my avatar at right on my blog under "about me."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

NT Survey Class at BIH

I will be teaching a short New Testament Survey Course for the Bible Institute of Hawaii (BIH) in April and May. The class will meet weekly on Thursdays from 7-9 at Kalihi Union Church. Details are available in the flyer above, and you can register (for only $40!) at the BIH website.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Lord's Prayer in Elvish

Middle-Earth fans are well aware that J.R.R. Tolkien, as an accomplished linguist (or philologist, as they were called then), created multiple languages for Middle-Earth. The two languages that he developed the most were two elven languages, Quenya and Sindarin. Tolkien translated the Lord's Prayer into Quenya himself, and a fan translated into Sindarin.

In Quenya:
Átarema i ëa han ëa, na aire esselya,
aranielya na tuluva, na care indómelya cemende tambe Erumande.
Ámen anta síra ilaurëa massamma,
ar ámen apsene úcaremmar sív' emme apsenet tien i úcarer emmen.
Álame tulya úsahitenna mal áme etelehta ucullo.

In Sindarin:
Ae Adar nín i vi Menel
no aer i eneth lín
tolo i arnad lín
caro den i innas lin
bo Ceven sui vi Menel.
Anno ammen sír i mbas ilaurui vín
ar díheno ammen i úgerth vin
sui mín i gohenam di ai gerir úgerth ammen.

The picture: The Lord's Prayer in Sindarin (the letters are in the Tengwar script, also created by Tolkien).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Handling Accurately or Teaching Straight?

In my Greek class last week, we had a discussion about the word ὀρθοτομέω (orthotomeo) in 2 Timothy 2:15. Here's a quick overview of how several translations render the end of that verse:

NIV: correctly handles the word
NASB: accurately handling the word
NLT: correctly explains the word
NET Bible marginal note: "correctly handling" or "imparting it without deviation"
NAB: imparting the word... without deviation
The Message: laying out the truth plain and simple

Translations vary because orthotomeo is a metaphorical word referring to cutting straight. Is the emphasis on accurate workmanship? (NIV, NASB, most others) or on straight cutting, meaning without deviating to irrelevant teaching? (NAB, The Message).

Here are two reasons why I am starting to favor the sense of "without deviation."
1) Orthotomeo is used in LXX Prov 3:6 and 11:5 to refer to cutting a straight path - a path that does not meander. The word is not used elsewhere in the NT or LXX.
2) The context of 2 Tim 2:15 includes both warning against incorrect teaching and against pointless teaching. However, one of Paul's key warnings in the entire passage is against pointless speculation: "warn them not to argue about words" "avoid worldly and empty chatter" "refuse foolish and ignorant speculations".

If that is how Paul is using the metaphor, then his point is that teaching in the church needs to stick to the big important ideas and not get distracted into speculation, pointless debate, or error.

The picture: a fresco of Paul from a tomb believed by some to hold his actual remains. It is the oldest painting of Paul, and the sarcophagus contains bone fragments from the first or second century.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dr. Seuss and Revelation

Last week, I taught a short seminar at HIM (which is Hawaii's biggest Christian conference) on how to read Revelation. To explain the nature of symbolism in Revelation, I used a few political cartoons (an idea that I got from David Scholer, one of my doctoral advisors at Fuller). And in honor of Dr. Seuss' birthday a few weeks ago, I used some of Seuss' political cartoons from the 30s and 40s. What is interesting, and what makes this relevant to the study of Revelation, is that Dr. Seuss' cartoons were immediately obvious to readers at the time, but are difficult to understand today unless we study history. If you are my age or older, you can immediately recognize the hammer and sickle in the chef's hands as a symbol of Communism or of the USSR - but if you are the age of many of my college students, you might not recognize the symbol. Most people today recognize the swastika on the pig's hat, but people from another time might not. You have to know something about history to recognize that the cartoon represents Stalinist Russia's defeat of Hitler's Germany. There's a few things I don't know - was this cartoon in response to a particular battle that Russia won? or in hopes of a victory? And what does the wreath on Joe's left arm symbolize?
Here's another one that made immediate sense to the original listeners. "Coughlin-ites" refers to followers of Charles Coughlin. Although he is obscure to us, Coughlin was the most popular radio speaker in the US during the 30s and early 40s (more than 40 million listeners, according to the infallible Wikipedia entry). Saying "Coughlin-ites" was something like saying "Ditto-heads" or "Limbaugh-ites" today. But Coughlin was sadly an anti-semitic Nazi sympathizer who blamed the escalating European conflict on England rather than Germany.

In this cartoon, labels help identify the topic. Pearl Harbor and Manila on a couple of bricks show that Dr. Seuss is talking about the Japanese attacks that brought the US into WWII. Dr. Seuss, like others from his time, clearly felt that Japan's unannounced and unprovoked attacks broke the rules of warfare - and now it was time to take up some of the same dirty tricks? There are only a few symbols here: the top hat as a symbol for the US and a swastika for Hitler. Is the main figure an eagle, America's symbol? or is it a chicken, symbolizing fear? Note another culturally-bound image: Hirohito is portrayed in a manner many would now regard as racist. But is Seuss racist? Reading his other cartoons makes me think not - he was in favor of civil rights for African Americans long before it was popular.

You can see the relevance for studying Revelation: we cannot understand the meaning of symbols, such as the beast, 666, Babylon, the two witnesses, or any others, unless we know how people perceived those symbols in the ancient world. We also could easily misread the impact of certain images. Just as we might (mis)read Seuss as racist, rather than opposed to the aggression of Japan, some scholars (mis)read Revelation as anti-semitic, rather than responding to first-century Jewish-Christian tension.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bible Genre Chart

One of the important aspects of interpreting the Bible (or any other type of literature) is paying attention to genre and adjusting reading strategies accordingly. You'll notice this emphasis in almost any book on hermeneutics. We pay attention to genre unconsciously when reading or even watching movies. We go into a sci-fi, romantic comedy, or action-adventure movie, and we have a set of expectations and an unconscious interpretational grid for that type of movie.

In the Bible, we also switch between various genres: poetry, wisdom, historical narrative, biography, epistles, apocalyptic literature, parables, and so on. I developed a handy-dandy chart to help guide readers through the various genres of the Bible. Unfortunately, the chart doesn't work well in blogger format, so you can access it here as a pdf (the pictures above are just snapshots). Feel free to make a copy if it helps you with your Bible reading.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Origin of the Name "Jehovah"

Claude Mariotti wrote a nice post on the origin of the name Jehovah from the original YHWH as the personal name of God in the OT. Devout Jews avoid saying YHWH (pronounced Yahweh) out of honor for God, replacing it with either Adonai (Lord) or Hashem (the name). In the Hebrew Bible, the vowels from Adonai are transposed onto the divine name YHWH to remind the reader to say Adonai instead of Yahweh. This results in the Hebrew spelling YeHoWaH, although it is never pronounced that way. Modern English Bibles normally translate YHWH with LORD, Adonai with Lord, and Elohim with God.

What Dr. Claude pointed out that I was not aware of was that Jehovah was not used as a transliteration of YHWH until 1278 in the work of a Spanish monk.

Of course, you all immediately saw the significance of that date: If Jehovah was not in use during the 11th century (the first Crusade), then there is a mistake in one of the final scenes of the otherwise inerrant and inspired Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One of the clues to avoid the traps protecting the Holy Grail involved stepping on the letters in Jehovah to avoid falling to certain death. My faith in Steven Spielberg is now destroyed forever.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bible Translation Quotes

I came across some good quotes on the nature of Bible translation as I was preparing to lecture on the subject for my Bible Interpretation classes:

“If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds thereto, he is a blasphemer, and a slanderer!” (Rabbi Judah, b. Kiddushin 49a, quoted in HTPAT, Fee and Strauss)

“Let them not drag me into court if the text does not agree with the original word for word, for, try as you may, it cannot be done.” (Erasmus, Apologia 170:20-1)

"You are urged therefore to read with good will and attention, and to be indulgent in cases where, despite our diligent labor in translating, we may seem to have rendered some phrases imperfectly. For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this work, but even the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books differ not a little as originally expressed." (Preface to Sirach, ca. 200 BC)

“I must let the literal words go and try to learn how the German says that which the Hebrew expresses… Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it – once he understands the Hebrew author – that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, “Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?” … Let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the German he knows. (Martin Luther, commenting on translating the Old Testament into German, quoted in HTPAT, Fee and Strauss)

And we can't omit the Italian proverb "Traduttore traditore" ("the translator is a traitor.")

The picture: Acts 15:22-24 in Codex Laudanius, a parallel Greek/Latin manuscript, 6th century. Note the scribal correction in the line fourth from the bottom: the original says etaran, but the corrector changed it to etaraxan (they troubled). Also note the faint lettering in the background, which is probably text on the other side of the page that has bled through.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Come on in, you wounded Greeklings

For all my Greek students, here's a post I read over at Dave Black Online (originally from Laudator Temporis Acti):

After the first three weeks of the beginning Greek class, 20 percent of the students are unfortunately conked, casualties of the masculine nouns of the first declension. Others are DOA thanks to the pronoun autos. They find that the autos monster can mean three altogether different things ("him/her/it/them," "-self," or "same"), depending on both its case and its position in a sentence. Students do withdraw from an introductory Greek class before they taste Plato or the Gospels, these bored, annoyed, and exhausted ninteen-year-olds, those very prospects who you once hoped would go on to Thucydides—and perhaps be one of the 600 each year in America who still major in Classics. They slide now across the hall to squeeze into the university's over-enrolled Theory of Walking, Rope Climbing, and Star Trek and the Humanities, which will assuage and assure them that they are, all in all, pretty nice kids, classes that will offer the veneer of self-esteem but will guarantee that they will probably lose what little sense of real accomplishment they had carried within to begin with. You can nearly hear those doctors of therapy, those professors of recuperation at the lecture-hall door: "Come on in, you wounded Greeklings. It's not your fault. They had no business subjecting you to all that rote; we do things a lot differently here. Relax, sit back, breathe deeply, and tell us how you feel."

The picture: First column of the Gospel of Luke, from codex Sinaiticus (ca. AD 350).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

SBL Survey

The Society of Biblical Literature (an association of biblical scholars to which I belong) is putting together a website on biblical studies aimed at laypeople. It might end up being a good resource for students. To get it started, they are asking for input on this survey. It should only take a few minutes to fill out, and it will help them make decisions about what to include on the site.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Twitter Ven Diagram

This is especially for my friends who tweet and those who read my blog on facebook. I wonder where blogging would fit in? We might have to add a fourth circle, labelled "delusional."

Thanks to Leon for the diagram.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book of Acts Wordle

A wordle of the book of Acts. I fed in the text of the NASB, then did a find and replace to get the most common verbs in the same tense. Like all wordles, the size of the text shows the relative frequency of the word in the text. From