Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lost in translation: When one verse can mean two things

Hebrew, in its ancient form, was a language where the vowels were left unwritten. That is to say: the original texts of the Old Testament did not have the vowel marks written in. Later, when the vowels were added, sometimes more than one reading was possible.

Imagine if someone reading English saw a word written as only the consonants "strk". What does that mean: Stark? Strike? Stork? Stroke? The surrounding words can help piece together the likely meaning; still, sometimes we cannot be completely sure about which word was meant.

The ancient Hebrew sages had an interesting approach to this problem. They allowed more than one reading of the letters. By considering more than one word in these places, they could take more than one meaning from the same verse.

Consider this verse from the Psalms which, according to the Talmud, was sometimes read in two different ways:
"Come, behold the works of the Lord, who has made desolations in the earth." (Psalm 46:8)


"Come, behold the works of the Lord, who has made names in the earth." (Psalm 46:8)
Are they really both legitimate?
The comment in the Talmud supporting the alternate reading was:
Read not "shammoth" [desolations] but "shemoth" [names]. Berachoth 7b
If we keep in mind that the vowels were not in the original, we can take the sages' point that either reading is possible.

In reviewing the Biblical commentaries in the Talmud, it is common to see two different wordings allowed for the same verse. Here are only a few of the other instances in the Talmud:
  • Read not "sabe'a" [satisfied] but "sheba'" [seven].
  • Read not "morashah" [inheritance] but "me'orasah" [betrothed].
  • Read not "goyim" [nations] but "ge'im" [lords].
  • Read not "adam" [a man] but "edom" [an Edomite].
  • Read not "be-fares" [when he scatters] but "befaresh" [when one pronounces distinctly]
  • Read not "be-zalmon" [in Zalmon] but "be-zalmaweth" [in the shadow of death]

There are literally hundreds of uses of this principle in the Talmud; it was a well-accepted and established practice. And, given the lack of vowels in the original, it was appropriate to the original language.

Consider one more possible example of this principle, this time coming from a New Testament reference back to the ancient Hebrew prophets:
He went out and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: He shall be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:23)
There is no Old Testament text that is customarily translated that way, calling the Messiah a Nazarene. But apparently, there is a text that could have been translated to refer to the Messiah as a Nazarene, if another acceptable reading of the same letters had been chosen. The church fathers traced that reference in Matthew back to Isaiah 11:1, but not in the Greek translations that they often used; only in the Hebrew texts. The "branch" from Isaiah 11:1 is "netzer", very much like the town Nazareth and its people the Nazarenes. So the New Testament authors may well have been using the accepted principle of using different readings with the same root letters: read not "branch" but "Nazarene".

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength: getting the focus right

According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God:
The most important commandment is this: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." (Mark 12:29-30)

If that is the greatest commandment, then how do we live it?

It is easy to get caught up in the words "heart, soul, mind, and strength" -- working to figure out what each part means, exactly. There is some wisdom to be gained there if we notice: the ultimate point is that we love God with everything we are and everything we do. If we say to ourselves, "Heart, soul, mind, strength -- but it doesn't say eyes" we've missed the point. If we figure out the difference between soul and spirit, but don't love God with them, we have missed the point. "Heart, soul, mind, strength" is meant to emphasize that it's everything.

It is easy again to get caught up in the fact that "everything about us" should love God, to consider ourselves in each aspect. Then we lose sight of the fact that loving God is supposed to be about God, not about ourselves. When we study what it means, "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" -- it means that everything about us should be focused on loving God. Love is about the one who is loved.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Paper Christians

We Christians can spend a lot of time studying. We study the Bible regularly -- whether it is daily or weekly. We go to Bible studies. We listen to sermons. We read about God, sometimes write about God or teach about God. I have nothing against any of that. But the word of God can be a dormant seed inside us at that stage. We're at risk -- especially those of us who are bookish -- for mistaking the study of our faith for the faith itself. You've heard of paper tigers; we have a risk of becoming paper Christians.

Study has a rightful place within our faith. Still, if I studied basketball and could pass a written test with top scores, that doesn't mean I'd have a place on a pro team. It doesn't even mean I could make a free throw, or score on the court rather than just on paper.
  • We learn and teach about community. But do we make friends, and build traditions with our families? Do we know our neighbors? Do we have a reputation for hospitality?
  • We learn and teach about forgiveness. But do we forgive? Are we known for being kind?
  • We learn and teach about reconciliation. But do we reconcile with family members? Are there any people that, by unspoken agreement, we avoid each other -- or do we clear the air?
  • We learn and teach about faith and hope. But do we encourage faith and hope to grow by looking at God's faithfulness and God's promises?
  • We learn and teach about love. But how much time do we spend increasing our love by thinking about the goodness in someone else? How often do we remember the kindnesses someone has shown us?

If someone studies law, we expect them to practice law. If someone studies medicine, we expect them to practice medicine. If someone studies teaching, or plumbing, or any other useful thing, we expect them to practice it. This kind of learning is life-long; that's why there are continuing education programs for most jobs. And our churches are continuing education programs, in a sense. But if the Word of God is living and active, then it calls us to be living and active.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Did the earliest gospel end with Jesus still in the tomb?

Every now and then you see the claim that the earliest Christian gospel ended with Jesus still in the tomb -- without a resurrection. The starting point for this claim is typically that the oldest texts of Mark seem to have either ended very abruptly -- without closing remarks that a reader might expect -- or that those original closing remarks were lost early in its history. (This was an indirect part of the conversation here about the history of Mark's closing remarks.) At any rate, the critics' claim is roughly that the very end of Mark is not original, and Mark is the oldest of the four recognized gospels, therefore the oldest Christian teachings did not involve Jesus' resurrection. (Therefore, somebody came along later and invented that story, and it's not true.)

That claim is factually wrong on a couple of different levels. First, the closing remarks in Mark 16:9-20 -- the verses that many scholars believe are not part of the original text -- are not the first mention of Jesus' resurrection in the gospel of Mark. Just a few verses before that, there is a discussion of Jesus' resurrection:
He said to them, "Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you shall see him, as he told you." (Mark 16:6-7)
So if someone were to completely discard the questioned ending of Mark, it would not change the fact that Jesus was plainly stated to have risen in the earlier verses of the gospel of Mark. No matter what your view is about the questioned verses, either way the Gospel of Mark ends with Jesus having been raised from the dead.

Second, many scholars believe some of Paul's letters to be from an earlier date than the Gospel of Mark. It is a mistake to assume that the gospels were written earlier -- that they are the earliest information we have on Christian teaching -- simply because our New Testaments have the gospels collected in the front and the other writings behind. Jesus' resurrection is a key point in Paul's writings. Paul's letter to the Galatians may date to the late 40's or early 50's A.D.; Jesus' resurrection is mentioned in the very first verse of that letter. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians also may have an early date, in the 50's A.D. Again, Paul does not get far into the letter before he proclaims Jesus' resurrection: "his [God's] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Paul's first letter to Corinth, again often dated to the 50's A.D., contains a lengthy discussion of resurrection and an early list of witnesses who had seen Jesus alive again after he was raised from the dead. Here are texts that many scholars believe to be the earliest Christian writings. Here are texts that most would agree were written in the lifetime of people who knew Jesus in person. And in them, time and again, there are clear references to Jesus' resurrection. There are even references to people still alive in that day who had seen him with their own eyes.

In short, when people say that the Gospel of Mark ended without a resurrection, they are mistaken. They may have confused the closing remarks with the earlier verses where the readers are told of Jesus' resurrection. Or they may not be aware of the earlier verses where the readers are told of Jesus' resurrection. And if the dates that scholars assign to Paul's letters are correct, the announcement of Jesus' resurrection went well back into the lifetimes of those who knew him in person.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Jesus' authority at the Temple: The question is really, "Who is he?"

Sometimes people view the Gospel of John with suspicion since it records Jesus saying more directly about himself than the other gospels. "I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life" -- those and more of the great "I am" sayings of Jesus are recorded in the Gospel of John. What did the earlier gospels think of Jesus? Would they also show Jesus saying such things about himself?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke together record that on Jesus' final visit to Jerusalem, he went to the Temple and cleared out all the vendors; he also taught there regularly. Those who considered themselves in charge of the Temple came to ask him: Exactly what authority did you have to do that? All three of the earlier gospels record that, at this point, Jesus referred to John the Baptist: You tell me what authority he had to baptize, and I'll tell you what authority I had to do that.

Why did Jesus starting talking about John the Baptist? Was he changing the subject? No; in all three of the gospels, the people understood his point in asking about John the Baptist : "If we say, 'From heaven' then he will say, 'Why did you not believe him?'" They knew full well that John the Baptist said Jesus' authority was from heaven. So if they admitted that John the Baptist was a prophet, they would have to acknowledge that Jesus was even greater, as John had said. That was why they couldn't acknowledge John the Baptist: John the Baptist testified about Jesus. All Jesus would have to say then is, "Why did you not believe him?" and they knew it.

If we look at how these "authorities" handled truth, we can see that they handled truth the same way that many people handle morality: whatever is to their benefit is considered right, and whatever is not to their benefit is questionable or wrong. They didn't just draw the lines of "morality" to suit themselves, they did the same to "truth" as well. They did not look for what was right; they calculated what was to their benefit. Such is the way of the world. "We do not know," they answered about John the Baptist. But they sure sounded as if they knew; they just didn't want to admit it.

Jesus did not let the conversation end there with their evasion. He told a parable of the wicked tenants who were about to get evicted -- after they had killed the messengers, and would finally kill the owner's son. How did the authorities react? "They knew he had spoken this parable against them." (Amazing how, in their minds, it was always about them. Whether they could acknowledge Jesus was about them. Whether they could acknowledge John the Baptist was about them. The parable is about them.) Part of the parable was about them -- they were the wicked tenants who didn't mind killing someone so that they could stay in charge. But did they recognize that Jesus put himself in a different category than the messengers who came before? In Jesus' parable, he was the son of the owner. He was the heir.

If they knew their Scriptures then they would have understood Jesus' reference to a vineyard:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. He looked for justice [as the harvest of the vineyard] but saw oppression. He looked for righteousness [as fruit] but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:7)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the point plainly enough: Jesus' answer about his authority was that he was above any messenger who had come before: he was uniquely the son and heir of the LORD.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Blessing the Wine: An ancient Jewish tradition sheds light on Jesus' last supper

Many Christian churches still follow the ancient practice of blessing the wine for communion. We trace our practice back to what Jesus did when he celebrated his last supper:
And he took the cup, and gave thanks ... (Matthew 26:27)
And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them (Mark 14:23)
And he took the cup, and gave thanks ... (Luke 22:17)
The gospels do not go into exact details on what was involved in blessing the wine. We can see that the blessing was a hands-on action that required taking the cup in hand and giving thanks, but we know little more than that directly from the Scriptures.

An ancient Jewish source, the Talmud, goes into details on what went into a Jewish blessing over wine. Some of the instructions seem obscure to us today, for instance: the one who blesses is wrapped, possibly in a robe.* Some of the instructions seem obvious, for instance: the cup is washed / rinsed. And some of the instructions have been passed along to this day:
'It is taken in both hands': R. Hinena b. Papa said: What is the Scriptural warrant for this? -- Lift up your hands in holiness and bless the Lord. [Psalm 134:2] (Berachoth 51a)

'He raises it a handbreadth from the ground': R. Aha b. Hanina said: What Scriptural text have we for this? -- I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. [Psalm 116:13] (Berachoth 51b)
Compare those ancient Jewish instructions to some modern Christian instructions on how a priest is to bless the wine:
He returns to the middle of the altar, takes the chalice with both hands, raises it a little, and says quietly: Benedictus es, Domine (Blessed are you, Lord). (from p. 40, item 142)
There are other parts of blessing the wine mentioned in the Talmud as well: the one who blesses fixes his eyes on the cup, and after the wine is blessed, it is passed around to the members of the household. These are also familiar to many Christians from our own worship services.

This practice is not limited to Roman Catholics; steps just like these are followed by a variety of Christian groups around the world. Those words and gestures are following a pattern inherited from Judaism and passed down through the ages. They may well reflect Jesus' own actions that last night. While some parts of the practice may have dropped out -- such as being wrapped in a robe -- those parts that have survived are still clearly recognizable after roughly two thousand years.

As for the history of the liturgy -- the ancient form of worship celebrated in mainstream churches -- most parts of that liturgy have names in Latin, such as the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis. Just a few parts of the worship service are known even in Western churches by their Greek names. Greek was used earlier in the church than Latin, so it's likely that the parts that have kept their Greek names are among the most ancient parts: the Kyrie and the Eucharist.

* On the robe part, the Talmud mentions a disagreement on whether that was necessary. I also did not see any Scriptural warrant cited for the practice, unlike some of the others.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The baptism with which he was baptized

Remember when Jesus was headed to Jerusalem, knowing he was about to be executed? And along the way the disciples had the wrong expectation. They seemed to think that visit to Jerusalem was going to be the beginning of the Last Day. This was going to be the beginning of the Golden Age. King Messiah was coming into his own -- and they were his first, most loyal followers. They argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Some even came privately, jockeying for position, nominating themselves to sit at Jesus' right hand and left hand in the Kingdom. His answer was not encouraging:
Can you drink the cup I am going to drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized? (Jesus, to the self-promoters and would-be rulers)
When Jesus had first called them, he said, "Follow me." But as the last journey to Jerusalem got nearer, he said: "Take up your cross and follow me."

If we follow Jesus, at first we may be like the disciples -- that is, not really understanding it about Jesus' death, and jockeying for position and recognition. Or when we see the cross, we may be like the mourners who watched. But eventually the day comes when we end up less like the mourners and more like the thief who was crucified next to him. That's not a bad thing. That's the only one to whom he said, "Today you will be with me in paradise."