Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

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If it walks like a duck…

A friend recently expressed frustration at feeling unprepared in a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. Under discussion was Colossians 1:15 which describes Christ as “the firstborn of all creation.” This is a convenient verse for Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, which denies the full deity of Christ. It is therefore a discomfiting verse for the Christian defending Christ’s full divinity. More to the point, many Christians can be disarmed in discussions like this because they are not as readily equipped, as many Witnesses are, to cite specific references supporting orthodox positions.

In the case of Col. 1:15 the defense is pretty simple; reading verses 16-20 makes clear that someone more than a mere human is being described. But the deeper problem is the very use of Scripture. Sadly, Witnesses use our own proof-texting methods against us, and often more effectively. But there is another approach to this question that is not only truer to Scripture but also easier to remember.

It begins with this question: What does Scripture depict God doing because He is God? So much of our focus on who God is centers on the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and so on. But Scripture is far more taken up with divine action than divine essence. In fact, God frequently refers to himself as “the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This is true of the way that we think of ourselves as well. We don’t usually trot out adjectives to describe ourselves or others; we describe who we are by what we do.

So, what does God do as God? While God does many things in Scripture, there are several key actions that are uniquely ascribed to Him. God creates. God reveals himself. God gives the law. God establishes covenants. God redeems. God forgives sin. God gives life. God judges. God reigns. These things are definitive of who God is as God and set him apart from humanity and the gods of the nations.

Can you see where this is going? That’s right. Scripture depicts Christ engaging in each of the God-defining activities. It is arguably the whole goal of Scripture to make precisely this point. Christ is the Word of the Father at creation (John 1:1-3). He reveals the Father (John 1:18). He gives a “new commandment” (John 13:34). He institutes a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20). He saves (Matt. 1:20-21). He forgives sin (Luke 5:20-24). He raises the dead (John 5:21). He will judge (Acts 17:31). He reigns (Eph. 1:20-22). He is, in short, Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Christ is God because he does those things that only God can do.

Perhaps the greatest power in this approach is the fact that it focuses less on what texts say about God and Christ and more on who they are by what they have done. And ultimately, we want people to know Christ himself, not just the texts about him.

Ears to Obey

There is a textual curiosity in Hebrews 10. As is his practice, the author quotes from the Old Testament to make his case, in this case Psalm 40:6-8. Interestingly, he quotes from the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint. This is important because if you compare his quote in Hebrews 10:5 with Psalm 40:6 you will see what appears at first to be quite a difference:

Psalm 40:6b       But you have given me an open ear…

Hebrews 10:5b   But a body you have prepared for me…

To be more specific, the phrase in Psalms is literally “ears you have dug for me” in the Hebrew. Ears and bodies seem rather different! What’s going on here?

First, let’s consider why they might be different. In truth, the phrase “ears you have dug for me” is unusual even if evocative. F. F. Bruce thinks that when faced with this odd expression the translators of the Septuagint took it as a case of ‘part for the whole’, that is, “[T]he ‘digging’ or hollowing out of ears is part of the total work of fashioning a human.” Accordingly, they generalized the expression to “a body you have prepared for me.” That’s a possible explanation, though there may be more to it.

Let’s ask, “How is this phrase functioning in the psalm?” The phrase “ears you have dug for me” is set in contrast to “sacrifices and offerings.” What is the intended contrast? The psalmist is contrasting the practice of sacrifice with…what, exactly? A clue is found in v. 8: “I have come to do your will, O my God.” The psalmist is contrasting obedience to God’s will with the performance of sacrifices. This sounds remarkably like Samuel’s icy indictment of Saul when he tried to explain his failure to destroy the animals of the Amalekites as he had been instructed: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (see 1 Samuel 15).

What does this have to do with ears? There is a consistent theme in Scripture that true hearing of God’s word is shown in doing God’s word. By saying that he has been given divinely prepared ears, the psalmist is saying that God has prepared him to hear God’s word and to respond to it in action. If this is the sense, then the Greek translation’s adaptation of the phrase to “a body you have prepared for me” makes sense since obedience would be enacted bodily.

What does this have to do with Hebrews? First, we should not find it surprising that the author is using the Greek translation of the OT. The Septuagint was far more accessible in the early days of the church than the original Hebrew. Paul, for instance, quoted from the Septuagint sometimes and sometimes offered his own translation of the Hebrew. And since most of the Mediterranean world spoke Greek, the Septuagint was the preferred option.

Further, it is not surprising that the author liked the Greek rendering (whether he was aware of the original Hebrew or not) because of the way he uses the concept of “body.” The quote “a body you have prepared for me” (10:5) results a few lines later in the conclusion, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). The author understands the words of the psalm to come ultimately from the mouth of Jesus whose body—a clear reference to Incarnation—was prepared by God for the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

So, is this a case of the author Hebrews choosing willy-nilly what translation he uses so he can make his point? Ultimately, I don’t think so. Yes, the word ‘body’ proves more useful to the author’s purpose than ‘ears.’ But the original point of the psalm was that God was not so interested in the sacrificial system as he was in whole-person obedience to his will. The author has made the point that Jesus did just that; he lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15; 7:27-28). Further, Jesus’s bodily sacrifice was a piece of that whole life obedience (Heb. 2:17-18). With the ears God had given him he heard God’s word and with the body that was prepared for him he obeyed what he heard.

In the end, there is a deep irony between the psalm and Hebrews. For the psalmist, whole-life obedience was set in contrast to the sacrificial system. In Christ, whole-life obedience culminated in a whole-body sacrifice. As Bruce writes: “Wholehearted obedience is the sacrifice which God really desires, the sacrifice which he received in perfection from his Servant-Son when he came into the world.”

But…Swine flew

25990935-_uy200_In The Actuality of Atonement, Colin Gunton thoughtfully considers the role of metaphor in human thought and theology in particular before examining three specific biblical metaphors for atonement: the battlefield and the demons, justification, and sacrifice.

In his discussion of the victory theme he takes on the issue of the ontological status of the demonic. He concludes that talk of demons as personal forces is too mythical a take on the matter. Rather they are vivid ways of talking about social and moral forces at work in the world. He defends that far from being the result of ignorant myth-making, this sort of language is the best and perhaps only way to talk about forces that can only be described indirectly. He concludes: “The texts present us not with superhuman hypostases trotting about the world, but with the metaphorical characterisation of moral and cosmic realities which would otherwise defy expression” (66, emphasis original.)

I appreciate Gunton’s work here and there’s part of me that wants to buy in. After all, belief in the spirit realm is not easy to sustain in the modern context. And, being a bit of a ‘belief minimalist’ I don’t want to believe anything that I don’t have to believe. So if I could be convinced of such a position I might be tempted.

However, I wonder if Gunton’s presentation really does justice to the permeation of the spiritual forces theme throughout Scripture. This aspect of the ancient worldview is not merely retained as a light residue in a few Gospel stories and exhuberant statements in epistles. The thread of a spirit realm with its own narrative that intersects with the earthly story is shot through the biblical story.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me how these apersonal, “moral and cosmic realities” are understood to have the effects that they do. I understand, I suppose, how one might explain sickness as a result of certain “moral and cosmic realities”, but the gospels show a clear awareness of a difference between sickness and demonic activity, though the categories can overlap.

Put another way, “moral and cosmic realities” might be able to explain the existence of swine flu, but I fail to see how they can explain why swine flew.

Daily Office Lectionary

I have on and off found the reading schedule offered by the Daily Office Lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer to be a fruitful guide for daily Scripture intake (available here). Each day offers several Psalms, readings from both Old and New Testaments, and a passage from the Gospels. It is a two year cycle which begins on the first Sunday of Advent

One of the things I particularly enjoy is seeing links between the daily passages, though they were not really set together with such connections in mind.

Today is a good example. The readings were: Psalm 119:1-24; Psalm 12, 13, and 14; Isaiah 2:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20; and Luke 20:19-26. I was struck by the following interconnections.

  • Psalm 119, of course, is an extended meditation on the Word of God, his law, statutes, testimonies, etc. Since the Word is such a central biblical theme, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that it is a significant feature in other of the passages.
    • And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
    • “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
      to the house of the God of Jacob,
      that he may teach us his ways
      and that we may walk in his paths.
      For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
      and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

    • In Luke 20:21 some of Jesus’ listeners say of him, “You speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.”
  • Psalm 119:17 – Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word. ==> Psalm 13:6 – I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
  • Psalm 14 speaks of the atheism and corruption of the nations. Isaiah 2 speaks of rich, godless nations.
  • Given that those quoted above were trying to catch Jesus out, Psalm 12:2 is apposite: “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.”
  • The following verse’s wish–“May the Lord cut off all flattering lips”–seems to be fulfilled in Luke 20:26 – “And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.”

My kingdom for a comma!

The last verse of Psalm 20 offers an interesting glimpse into issues of translation without causing too much impact in interpretation.

Here is the Hebrew with a literal translation followed by the main English options:

יְהוָ֥ה   הוֹשִׁ֑יעָה   הַ֝מֶּ֗לֶךְ   יַעֲנֵ֥נוּ   בְיוֹם־קָרְאֵֽנוּ׃
Yahweh save the-king may-he-answer-us in-the-day-of-our-calling.[1] (Heb)
O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call. (ESV)
Save, O LORD; May the King answer us in the day we call. (NASB, KJV)
Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call. (RSV, NIV)

If you read carefully you will see that there are two points of difference, one in each half of the verse. In the first half of the verse there is the question as to whether the word “the king” is the direct object of “Lord, save” or the subject of the verb “May he answer us” in the second half of the verse. The ambiguity is created by the fact that Hebrew does not have punctuation to make the break in the thought clear. I think the KJV may have taken the option it does because it makes the verse more overtly Christological.

The second difference has to do with the subject of the verb “answer” in the second half of the verse. Who’s the “he?” The first two options follow the Hebrew in making the subject of the verb “He” as the verb form indicates.[2] The third English option above, represented by the RSV and NIV, makes the subject of the verb “answer” out to be “you”, referring to Yahweh from the first half of the verse. It is understandable why they have done this. Having made the first half of the verse a direct address to the Yahweh, “Lord, save the King” and not wanting to say “May the king answer us when we call” because it sounds like the people would be praying to the king, they opt to see the referent of the verb “answer” to be “The Lord” even though that necessitates changing the verb from “may-he-answer” to “may-you-answer.”

What do I think? Regarding the first issue, I think “Lord, save the king!” is the best because it fits best with the theme of the psalm and because it balances the lines in the verse into 2 three word phrases. Regarding the second, I think the best explanation is that the second half is a summary phrase that echoes the early verses of the psalm. This way the subject of “May-he-answer-us” can still be Yahweh not the king, just as those early verses were expressed to Yahweh. It also explains how the verse can shift from direct address to third person.

Does it matter? Well, from a NT perspective, not too much. Christ is Lord and Christ is the King!

[1] Hyphens indicate multiple words translating one Hebrew word.

[2] For Spanish speakers this is like the difference between estás, you are, and está, he is.

What’s the big deal?

I recently discussed the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 with some friends. The text is often used to suggest that Jesus dismissed the woman’s sin, excusing her. If Jesus had done so it would have been in defiance of the law. Would Jesus do that?

But Jesus does not dismiss her sin. Rather, the passage ends with Jesus instructing her to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus clearly regarded her and her assailants as sinners.

Perhaps we want to see Jesus overlooking the woman’s sin in this story because we are much more comfortable with having our sin excused than having it forgiven. C. S. Lewis once admitted:

When I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.

What is the difference?

We excuse people all the time with phrases like, “It’s no problem,” “No worries,” “Think nothing of it,” etc. We are communicating that there has been no offense, no violation.

When we ask God to excuse our sin we are asking him to act as though there has been no offense, as though no sin has been committed. We are asking that He see our sin as we do, as “no big deal.”

Asking for forgiveness, on the other hand, involves our recognition that there has been offense. There has been a violation. A party has been wronged. It cannot be merely overlooked. In asking for forgiveness we see our sin as He does.

On the part of the offended party, offering forgiveness requires grace. Excusing a behavior only requires personal flexibility or moral laxity.

Asking for forgiveness requires humility; we are at the mercy of the offended party to dispense grace or justice. Truly seeking forgiveness involves both our emotions–we are grieved over the offense–and actions–we ‘repent’, change direction. Asking for our sins to be excused includes no remorse and implies that there will be no change in behavior since “it was no big deal.”

Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to ask for; it is hard to give. No wonder we look for substitutes. But when we do, the loss is ours. Because both sin and grace are a big deal.