Reading the Bible on Your Head

Many thanks to Brian Zahnd for sharing his “problem” with the Bible. This is an excellent little meditation on hermeneutics (even though he doesn’t use that word). When we read the Bible, who do we identify with? Who is telling the story of Scripture: Is it a minority report, or a majority report?

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite!

Lots to ponder here.


Drastic Measures

“We have a problem,” he said gravely in his thick British accent. Our family was on our eleventh day in the United Kingdom earlier this summer. We had checked out of our place in the Highlands of Scotland and had been traveling all day in order to make it to England so we could check into our guest house in Whitley Bay. We were tired. We were carrying all our luggage. But there was a problem with the house, as he announced to us.


Yes, fleas. And the young man who was our host assured us that we couldn’t stay there that night—tired or not. Apparently while his family had been on holiday, their housecat had introduced an infestation of fleas throughout the whole house, including the beds and living room. They had returned earlier that same day and discovered that the whole house was hopping with the little biting critters. The young man physically blocked us from entering the house as he explained the situation. He and his family were busy feverishly cleaning, vacuuming, and using flea powder on everything.

And when we heard this news, we were suddenly not that tired, and not quite so eager to check in.

Take your time, really. Make sure it’s good and clean. That’s what was running through my mind.

And as I reflect on that experience in England, my mind wanders across Scripture to an obscure section of the book of Leviticus. In chapters 13 and 14, there are extensive rules and procedures for dealing with diseases of the skin, fabrics, and houses. Yes, houses. No mention of fleas there, but still some good advice for the people of Whitley Bay, at least in concept.

Leviticus counsels that a priest come to a house if there is a spreading mold. If the mold continues to spread after a week-long quarantine, then the plaster needs to be scraped off, the affected stones removed, and both thrown outside of town. If the spreading mold returns, then the whole house must be pronounced unclean and it must be torn down and deposited outside of town in an unclean place.

Pretty drastic, especially for a time when building a house was a big, expensive deal.

Would you tear down your house because of mold? Or fleas? How far would you go to correct a problem like that?

How about when it comes to your spiritual life? The truth is that sometimes our lives become like a guest house infested with fleas: fine on the outside, but filthy inside. And sometimes our souls can pick up a spreading mold of unchecked sin. So the question is, what will we do with our sin and filth? Will we take drastic measures to correct it—with vacuuming, scrubbing, and powder? Will we tear down the house, just to save our lives? Or will we tell ourselves that everything is okay and leave all as it is?

There was a silver lining to our stay in England. We didn’t stay in the flea house, but miraculously God provided another house a block over (which is another adventure story for another time). And there is a silver lining for all of us who have infestation in our souls. God has miraculously provided a way to be cleansed and forgiven. Jesus has taken all our sins and sicknesses into his body on the cross, so that we can be completely healed. So let us all pause and take a good look at our inner lives, to diagnose our sin. And then, let us take the steps necessary to address the problems we find there, knowing that God is able and willing to heal us.

Harmonizing in Translation

So I was reading Mark 11:1-11 this week, in preparation for a sermon.  I compared Mark with the other Gospels (since they all relate this account of Jesus’ arrival) and discovered that they use different words to describe the animal(s) that Jesus rode into Jerusalem.

Mark uses polos, the basic word for a young male equine mammal, a.k.a. a colt (either a horse, donkey, or mule).  Luke, like Mark, uses polos, and John employs onarion, a diminutive of onos (so a little or young donkey).  Matthew takes Zechariah literally and depicts both a colt (polos) and a donkey (onos).

In my research, I consulted the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), to see how they translated this passage.  And to my surprise, the HCSB translates all three different terms in all four Gospels as simply “donkey.”  And I am still puzzled why a translation that prides itself on being accurate would flatten out the four different ways the evangelists chose to tell this story.  Don’t get me wrong: I typically appreciate the HCSB.  I think their translation policy (a simple, hybrid between literal and dynamic) is excellent (except for how they render words for human beings, but that’s another post).

But I think they got this one wrong.

And worse yet, the only explanation I can think of, is that the HCSB translators wanted to create artificial harmony among the Gospels–to smooth over any perceived inconsistencies, perhaps in service to inerrancy.  It’s as if the translators (or editors) started with a liturgical picture–Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding on a donkey, and children waving palm branches around him–and then went to the text.  Which is eisegesis, by the way.  Which is not how you interpret Scripture, by the way.

Can anyone else explain this to me?  Any other theories?


Some Thoughts on the National Day of Prayer

I’m glad we have a National Day of Prayer.  Our own community observed the NDOP with a service of prayer that included all the churches (!) in our community.  Praise God.  It was great because Christians from very different backgrounds came together and actually prayed!  Powerful stuff.

But there seems to be a strange confusion with the National Day of Prayer, a conflation of church and state.

And that confusion is exemplified by Greg Laurie, the honorary national chairman of the NDOP, in his article in the Washington Post.  He starts out:

Everywhere we look in America, we see signs of decline. That’s because we have largely forgotten God, but the good news is God has not forgotten us.

Pretty good, so far.  Decline.  Remembering and turning to God.  Check.  But then he immediately veers off into the ditch.

In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”  In other words, America has two options: judgment or revival.

Or not.  If he had bothered to read 2 Chronicles 7, he would know that the context is in the dedication of Solomon’s temple and the LORD’s appearance to the king.  The “my people” is not a nation-state somewhere in the future in the New World.  But “my people” is the faith community, Israel.  Not America.

Yes, I know it can be confusing that in the Old Testament “Israel” refers to a political entity and God’s spiritual people, rolled into one.  They had kings and judges, as well as elders and priests.  The problem is that of analogy.  The contemporary analog of ancient, biblical Israel (as a political-spiritual entity) is not America-and-Christians—except for maybe if you’re a Mormon.  Because if that were true, Barack Obama would be our king/high priest, and Harry Reid and John Boehner would be heads of the Sanhedrin.  But the best analogy for Old Testament Israel, as we read the Bible today, is simply the church.  Jesus is our king and high priest.  And our ecclesiastical leaders function as priests and elders in the OT.  Much better, yes?

Laurie goes on with the mistaken analogy:

Unlike Rome, the United States was built on a Judeo-Christian foundation, but we have strayed dramatically from the vision of our Founding Fathers. Freedom of religion seems to have become freedom from religion. We have removed God from our schools, our sporting events, our public places and our workplaces.

So let me trace the comparison: Our modern “Israel” (aka the United States) was established by divinely guided prophets (the founding fathers); we have strayed from their pristine vision of theocracy by kicking God out of our public life.  Therefore, we are crumbling and need to repent and return to God (even, apparently, the non-Christians among us), reclaiming him in all public places.

Perhaps this has a lot to do with whether you think America was founded as a “Christian nation” or a “nation of Christians” or a secular republic that took no official, precise doctrinal stance on the nature of the almighty Creator mentioned in the founding documents.  Or something else.  But this recounting of America’s history seems a little sloppy and simplistic.

Even Laurie’s last analogy (the repentance of Nineveh after the preaching of Jonah) is flawed.  (And don’t even get me started on his non sequitur about America and the End Times.)  In the ancient world, people groups were bound by social, religious, political, and cultural/linguistic forces (e.g., Assyria and Israel).  Today, we are not.  Our nation, like it or not, does not have one official “god.”  It is set up so we are free to practice our faith as we see fit (unless it’s something illegal!), and that is a good thing.  If the founders had set up an official state church, by the way, Greg Laurie would have to find peace as an Episcopalian!  Or maybe a Presbyterian or a Congregationalist—the other two dominant faith groups in the New World.  The “God” mentioned in the Enlightenment-saturated documents of our founding fathers is probably not the same as the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ, the eternal God-Man who died for humanity’s sins and was raised from the dead, but rather an indolent deistic personality that passively oversees the affairs of humankind.

Don’t get me wrong: I love having the National Day of Prayer.  And yes, we need to repent and return to God.  And when I say “we,” I don’t mean “America,” but I mean “us Christians.”  And yes, it is our job as Christians to make a difference in our society, inviting unbelievers to put their faith in Christ and to embrace lives of righteousness.  But that is a spiritual calling, not a political agenda.


Good-bye NIV84 and TNIV

During Holy Week I heard the news that the 2005 Today’s New International Version (TNIV) and the 1984 New International Version (NIV84) had been removed from BibleGateway, leaving behind only the New International Version (NIV2011), the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV, a kids’ version), and the Anglicized NIV.  YouVersion also followed suit.

This is a significant shift, taking away the possibility of using the NIV predecessors and consolidating behind the NIV2011.  Marvin Olasky, writing in World Magazine, did some research why the NIV84 went missing (he doesn’t seem to care much that the TNIV disappeared).

According to him, BibleGateway has said, “The NIV’s worldwide publisher, Biblica, has requested that we remove the older 1984 and TNIV editions from BibleGateway, and we are complying with their wishes.”

On the positive side, Biblica seems to be solving the problem they created when they produced parallel-track translations with the NIV84 and the TNIV back in 2005.  Now there is no fragmentation; just one NIV.  Like it or not.

And apparently Marvin Olasky doesn’t like it.

Nursing an old grudge about gender neutrality, Olasky uses the news for an excuse to hunker down and demand that true believers stockpile copies of the “classic” NIV84 and to rail against the NIV2011’s faults.

There is no official word whether Olasky will be starting an NIV84-Only movement.

Stay tuned.


Only Slightly Revisionist

It’s a popular (but untrue) meme among liberal and revisionist scholars of early Christianity: that the Orthodox/Catholic/Nicene leaders in the early church solidified their power and subsequently squashed the diverse, feminist strands of Christianity that flourished in the first couple of centuries of the church.  Usually these revisionist scholars submit as evidence for their claims the Gnostic “Gospels” that emerged well after the first century, that they claim were blocked by those in power.

So I’m thankful for Timothy Paul Jones’ article refuting revisionist claims that other “Gospels” were barred from the New Testament canon by the powerful.

But while refuting the revisionists, Jones commits a tiny revision himself.  Jones is a Baptist scholar at a Baptist seminary.  And he retells church history with a distinctly Baptist slant.  Which is fine.  Except that the early church was not Baptist.  At least not as we understand Baptist today.

Jones says that in A.D. 199, Serapion “became the lead pastor of the leading church in Syria, the church in Antioch.  As the leading pastor in Antioch, Serapion was responsible not only for his own church but also for several smaller congregations in the area.”  That would be the job description of a bishop, or even a patriarch, but not a “lead pastor.”  “Lead pastor”–a distinctly 21st century megachurch term–makes it sound like Serapion called weekly staff meetings to “cast a vision,” to deal with the issues of opening a new satellite campus in the suburbs of Antioch, and to work out the details of the new worship service targeted at 20-somethings.  I’m surprised Jones didn’t refer to Serapion’s jurisdiction as a “conference”!

Jones may not like the terms “bishop” or “patriarch”–since Baptists are radically congregationalist–but that doesn’t change history that by the time Serapion lived, the church was firmly episcopal.

ESV Updates – 2011

Apparently when I wasn’t paying attention, the Translation Oversight Committee (which works on the English Standard Version of the Bible, aka ESV), made a few light changes to the ESV.  They are outlined here.  The changes are generally minor, emphasizing better English and more accurate word choices.  Thankfully, such clunkers as “Here am I” have become the more natural “Here I am.”  And the thoroughly archaic “make merry” has become “celebrate.”  But the TOC could still cut a little deeper on the translation to make it a better product.  (Frankly, this is a strength of the Holman Christian Standard Bible over the ESV: its clear, concise [and sometimes iconoclastic–that is, breaking with tradition] style.)  While I still like the ESV, the TOC could keep combing through the translation to make it smoother and more natural (without losing its traditional and literary sound).  Here are some quick, general suggestions:

  • Lose the vocative O’s;
  • Lose the reverse negatives (e.g., “rejoice not,” or “fear not”);
  • simplify some of the sentences in the epistles to fit English syntax;
  • be more consistent with language for human beings (e.g., men, man, people, brothers, etc.);

Any others I’ve missed?

There He Goes Again…

There he goes again…

If I could be an advisor to President Obama for a day, I would urge him to tone down the religious talk and to stop “quoting” the Bible altogether.  Now, I know that politicians brazenly co-opt everything for their ambitious purposes–and Mr. Obama is no exception.  They use people, groups, and organizations to further their political vision, and that’s fine, because that’s what politicians do.  But if I could be a bug in Mr. Obama’s ear, I would whisper, “Please think twice before you audaciously use God and/or the Bible to hawk your particular political program.  Because it comes off as arrogant, misguided, and nauseating.”

At last month’s National Prayer Breakfast, the president assumed his Spiritual Man persona and talked about the intersection of faith and politics.  Which is where the nausea sets in for me.

The first brazen misuse of the Bible came in his discussion of his tax policy.  The president’s conviction conveniently “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'”  Never mind that what he said is not actually a quote from any English translation of the New Testament.  Never mind that he intentionally gave his words an archaic, biblish flavor to convey authority.

The passage the president tried to quote is from Luke 12, and it comes in the midst of Jesus’ teaching about the End.  President Obama’s snippet follows Jesus’ parables about being ready for Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgment.

Here’s the relevant paragraph from Luke’s Gospel (from a certifiable translation…):

[Jesus said,] “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48 NIV)

And as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the Bible is dealing with religious matters here, and not matters of public policy and government (“You tithe the priest, not the tax man.”); this passage of Scripture has nothing to do with a progressive tax system and high taxes on the wealthy.  The “much” that is given to the servants is God’s special revelation in the Law of Moses, given to Israel.  Jesus seems to be saying that those who know God’s will (i.e., who have received the Law, presumably issues concerning righteousness, justice, and religious duty) are more responsible for obeying it than those who are unfamiliar with God’s express commandments.  Nothing at all about taxes!

In fact, the president’s error seems to grow when you draw parallels between what he said and what Jesus said.  In Jesus’ words, the master who returns to check the work of his servants and mete out judgment on them is the Messiah.  In the president’s words, the master that checks on the servants’ status and demands accounting is the IRS.

Utter blasphemy.

It gets even scarier when you consider the president’s implied understanding of government revealed in this passage.  In his world, apparently (assuming he’s actually thought this one through, even though he didn’t bother to look up the passage from a Bible to get the quote right), the government plays the role of God/Messiah, and the proletariat plays the role of slaves (Greek: doulos, meaning bondservant or slave) on the plantation.  In his world–keeping with his analogy from the Bible–the peasants (us) are accountable to the feudal lord (him), and the slaves are subject to “beatings” if they do not perform up to his expectations.

Truly frightening.

The second brazen misuse of the Bible was when the president repeated his favorite mantra: “I am my brother’s keeper.”  Mr. Obama uses this phrase a lot while campaigning (which is a lot) to refer to our mutual responsibility to take care of our fellow citizens through–you guessed it–a progressive tax system with high taxes on the wealthy, mediated by an authoritarian federal government.  (Sense a pattern here?)  Once again, “I am my brother’s keeper” is not a quotation from any translation of the Bible, but it is paraphrased from Genesis 4:9.  Here, in the biblical story, Cain has already murdered his brother out of jealousy and spite.  The Lord comes to Cain and inquires, “Where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain says, “I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  So never mind that Cain was lying…to God…about committing murder…against his brother.  And never mind that Cain really isn’t a model for our moral obligation for “taking care of” our brothers and sisters (in the mafia sense of “taking care of” someone, that is).

I won’t say much more about this passage, because Jerry Bowyer provides an excellent analysis of the language of Genesis 4 and how the president applies it to his politics.  (Bowyer also recently published a defense of his first work that is equally impressive.)  In a nutshell, Bowyer points out that “keeper” (shmr) can be translated as “shepherd”–which is a clever pun that Cain uses, considering his late brother was a “keeper” of sheep.  And apparently Cain thought he was a “shepherd” to his brother, since he slaughtered him like he would any fat lamb that was ready for the Passover feast.  So not only does this verse from Genesis have nothing to do with tax policy, but it is frightening (once again) when we consider its implications for the dynamics between the governed and governing.  Does it mean that President Obama is a “keeper” of the “sheep” only until it comes time to pay the bills and feed the family?

Truly frightening.

I especially like Bowyer’s observation that the LORD (YHWH) is described in the Torah as the Keeper or Shepherd of his people (“May the LORD bless you and KEEP you…”), and not the average Israelite.  For them?  They just need to be their brother’s brother.

The political and economic theology of shepherds starts with the affirmation that the role of provider, shepherd, and keeper of the people does not belong to any imminent human authority, but to the Lord. On this foundation, we see the Torah develop a social theory of equality before the law and of brotherhood among citizens, not keeperhood by the state.

Am I my brother’s keeper? No. According to the Torah, I am not my brother’s keeper, because I am my brother’s brother. (Jerry Bowyer)

So if I were an advisor to the president, I would say scrap the sermonizing and the tortured biblical interpretations.  Because Scripture also says (in the New King James Version, mind you, just for proper effect): “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1 NKJV)  And that goes for everyone…including politicians.

A Baptist’s Take on NIV2011

Here is a link to Dr. Rodney Decker’s review of the updated New International Version of the Bible (NIV2011) that was presented at the Bible Faculty Summit held last July at Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Ankeny, Iowa.  As you read it–and I hope you will–it’s important to keep in mind the setting: This is a conservative, evangelical, complementarian Baptist New Testament scholar presenting to a room full of like-minded Bible faculty.

This thoughtful, even-handed (and ultimately positive) review of this updated translation is definitely worth reading, even at 50 pages.  It deals as much with the NIV2011 as it does with translation issues, period.  And thankfully, Dr. Decker deals with issues and translation philosophy, rather than just rattling off the verses he disagrees with.

Perhaps the most surprising component of the paper is his pushback against the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s (CBMW) and the Southern Baptist Convention‘s condemnation of the NIV2011.

Unfortunately, single-issue groups [he’s talking about CBMW here], as helpful and necessary as they sometimes are, run the risk of becoming myopic, one-string fiddle players who view everything through a narrow window of priority. The results can include blindness to legitimate concerns in related areas, misrepresentation of other positions, rhetoric, and invalid arguments. (p. 31)

Ouch.  And he agrees with their position!

Also surprising is his concession regarding proof-texts about women in church and domestic leadership.  Responding to the NIV2011’s translation of 1 Timothy 2:12a (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”), Decker makes this astounding admission:

Those who want to proof-text certain positions (positions which may well be valid) will not be happy [that is, with the NIV2011’s treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12], but we must be honest with the text and acknowledge that this is an issue [that is, women’s roles in the church and home] that must be resolved on a much broader exegetical and theological basis. (p. 28)


Definitely worth the read for anyone interested in biblical translation in general or the NIV2011 in particular.

Translation Reviews: ESV and HCSB

Thomas Nass, an Old Testament scholar in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), recently posted two thorough and thoughtful reviews of the English Standard Version (ESV) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB):

An Introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible

Some Thoughts on the ESV and Bible Translation

Although Nass was reviewing the translations in reference to the WELS’ search for a default translation for their publications, his essays are insightful for anyone interested in Bible translation.  Surprisingly (at least based on my assumptions about WELS scholars), Nass is a fan of the NIV2011 and a flexible, dynamic translation philosophy.

His review of the ESV resonates with my own feedback on the subject (in Nass’ own words): “it [the ESV] is a doctrinally acceptable, somewhat unidiomatic and inconsistent evangelical revision of the RSV.  Nothing more and nothing less.”  I especially appreciated his critique of the ESV’s use of archaisms and inconsistent translations of gender language (among other inconsistencies).  And remember, I am one who deeply appreciates the ESV.

His review of the HCSB hit the nail on the head, as far as I’m concerned, even though I’ve never set about to write my own review.  Nass generally prefers the HCSB over the ESV, while offering substantive criticisms of the HCSB.

Worth the read!