Sunday, November 22, 2015


Challenging around 17 centuries of Christian scholarship requires not only boldness but also a lot of resources.  So I thought I might make a brief note of the resources I currently hold and have found useful.  With the demise of the Bagster publishing house a lot of Bible-study aids are no longer available but I have been studying the Bible for nearly 60 years so what I have reflects the past as well as the present.

For a start, the Lexicons.  I have a 1956 printing of  Abbott-Smith for Biblical Greek and the 1888 version of Liddell & Scott for classical Greek.  Both are good for extensive examples of the word discussed.  Abbott Smith is in fact pretty close to a concordance of the NT in Greek.

And I have three recensions of the Greek New Testament text: The early Griesbach one, the still popular 19th century Westcott & Hort one and a Nestle version. The Nestle version I have is not by Eberhard Nestle but by Erwin Nestle of the Privilegierte Württembergische Bibelanstalt, son of Eberhard (with G.D. Kilpatrick) so has had the advantage of drawing on more early manuscripts than the original Nestle recension. It was published by the BFBS and is dated 1958. I see that I paid 12/6 for it -- if anybody still understands that notation.

Of the three recensions that I have, only the Nestle has been printed complete with the original marginal notes and footnotes, but I have had some advantage from marginal notes elsewhere:  The redoubtable Companion Bible, where the notes are sometimes more voluminous than the text.  And the notes are from the viewpoint of committed Christians so are probably a useful thing for all serious Bible-students.  And another such set of notes come from my copy of the Geneva version of the Bible. I have a recent printing of it but the notes from 1599 have been preserved.  They can be a bit combative but the underlying scholarship is surprisingly good for the times.

And, as far as cross-references are concerned, "The treasury of scripture knowledge" from Bagster is a huge resource.  It gives related citations for almost every word of the NT. My copy is not dated but announces that it is the 27th  edition -- so was obviously wildly popular among serious Bible students once.

And something I have which is now not available after the demise of Bagster is a twin-text (Greek and English) version of the Septuagint, which is handy for those of us who are familiar only with New Testament Greek.  The Septuagint is of course the Bible version that Christ and the apostles usually quoted -- at least as far as the New Testament writers tell us. My copy was printed in 1879 so Bagster obviously held it in stock for a long time.  I wonder were there any remaining when they closed down?

I have three concordances, a very old (1828) printing of Cruden, probably taken off the original plates, and a Strong's Exhaustive, both of which, of course index the KJV.  To trace more modern text I use the "Comprehensive Concordance" put out by the Watchtower Bible & Tract society for their "New World" translation, which, being very literal, is a useful resource in its own right.  I would like a Young's Analytical concordance too but I had to call a halt somewhere and I felt that three concordances should be enough.

And I also have a couple of Bible dictionaries, a big 1963 version of Hastings as revised by Grant & Rowley plus the very comprehensive Watchtower one, called "Insight on the Scriptures".  Both of course are written from a particular viewpoint but that does not vitiate them

And I have of course a considerable range of Bible translations.  I have just counted them: 8. I have had more but every time I move house I give half my books away so a few of the less-used translations have gone in that way.  I rather regret giving away my copy of the Luther Bible in German, nicely printed in Gothic script. 

Because it is very popular, I often consult the NIV but it is clearly the servant of Protestant theology so is not to be trusted. I say more about that here.  For ease of reading I prefer the  RSV or the "New English Bible". My copy of the latter is a BFBS printing of 1974.

Finally, I have many volumes of commentary, mostly written from an Anglican viewpoint, but despite their extensiveness, I have yet to find anything useful in them so will not enlarge on exactly which publications they are.  I will probably give them away soon.

In my previous comments on Bible topics, I have rarely given much detail of the resources I was using so I hope this post will clear up any  uncertainty about my exact sources.  I also hope that the links and comments I have given above will point others to useful study aids

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Jehovah's witness version of John 1:1 is not mine

My translation is actually rather orthodox in scholarly circles. But I have found some new fun later on in John 1!

A reader has sent me a link to an exegesis which refutes the translation of John 1:1 preferred by Jehovah's witnesses.  She evidently did not see any difference between that and my account.

I could cavil about the exegesis concerned -- its apparent reliance on the Septuagint, which is itself a translation, for instance, their apparent reliance on the textus receptus when much better recensions are now available, and their apparent failure to grasp that "ho theos" was the normal pagan Greek word for any local god  -- which gave the NT writers something of a dilemma that they did not always resolve consistently,  but I will leave such points aside as I think they get there in the end.  I in fact agree with their final conclusion. I quote: 

"Hence, the Word belongs to the category of theos (“God”) as to His essence or nature—not His personal identity". 

Or as they put it more succinctly in their Conclusions:  "θεος in John 1:1c is qualitative, not indefinite"

Anarthrous theos indicates a quality not a person.  So it does NOT say that Jesus was God in the way that we would normally understand it.  It does not identify Jesus as God, which is what the trinitarians want it to do. 

I did point out that anarthrous theos could be translated as "a God" -- which is what the JWs do -- but I myself saw the meaning as referring to divine attributes in line with the "morphe theos" of Philippians.

My correspondent also sent me another exegesis which allegedly addressed the meaning of "morphe theou" in Philippians but it did not address my points.  It was concerned with the particular usage of "theos" rather than "morphe".  I could in fact have taken issue with the theos usage in that passage but I had already grumbled about the translation of three other words in that short passage so I called a halt at that point.  I think I had already shown that the passage indicated that Christ was LIKE God but not God.  It was a simple statement that had been overinterpreted by theologians.

But I am always learning so in reading the second exegesis I came across something that is great fun indeed:  The usage of "monogenēs theos" in John 1:18.   A begotten god!  Is that not clear enough that Jesus was created, despite having divine attributes?

I could not believe I had missed that point before.  I guess I still use the KJV too much, which has "begotten son". And the Griesbach recension has that usage too "monogenes huios", begotten son.  So I was unaware that both Westcott & Hort and Nestle give "monogenēs theos".  "theos" must be better attested than "huios" in the early MSS.

Huge fun however is the way most modern translations render "monogenēs theos".  They either miss out "monogenes" entirely or say simply "only". And some stick with "son", despite that not being in the best renderings of the original Greek text.  Though the  NIV has the grace to put "son" in brackets!  It is obviously a hugely embarrassing passage to them.  Embarrassing enough for them  to mistranslate it deliberately.  They are just incapable of saying that Christ was both  "genes", "born", "conceived" (perhaps "generated" in modern terms) but also a "theos", a god!   "A born God".  Let those words sink in.

I suppose trinitarians will waffle their way around that, as they usually do, but there is nothing unclear or mysterious in the original text.  If the text had said a born son, it could have meant Christ's incarnation. But it does not.  It was not a man that was born. It was a God.

Needless to say, the theologians and exegetes have gone wild trying to tell us that the text does not mean what it says. They say that μονογενὴς (monogenes) just refers to a particular person etc.  And they then give a pile of excerpts from classical and Biblical Greek in support of that. They also quote Liddell & Scott's definitions in support of their claims.   But all the examples they give are in fact of naturally born people and people identified by their particular birth.  Putting it another way, Greeks would on occasions refer to people as "borns", for various reasons. But born still meant born.

But let's leave the μονο aside and just look at γενὴς. They won't like Liddell & Scott's first definition of "genea", which is "of the persons in a family".  Not the mystical persons of the trinity but the individual persons of a normal family.  And let us look at a word we all know:  "Genesis".  It's exactly the same word in Greek and English and it's a form of γενὴς.  And we know what it refers to, don't we?  A beginning. So Christ was a god who had a beginning, a birth. QED

I would have been burnt at the stake for saying that at times in the past

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Agreement between Philippians 2:6 and John 1:1

 Ten years ago, I offered some comments on Philippians 2:6 which accepted the traditional understanding of the Greek word "harpagmon".  Since then, however, I have caught up with current scholarship on the translation.  So I thought it best that I started ab initio on a discussion of the text.  Hence my recent posts on that text. 

It is interesting to note that even with the traditional translation of "harpagmon", I was able to show that the text is uncongenial to the hopes of the trinitarians. Nothing can get around the fact that Jesus was described as "morphe theos" rather than "ho theos"  -- "in the form of a god", not God himself.

And as I sometimes peskily note, Jesus also had a beginning.  He is a created being. John 1:1 says so: "In the beginning was the Word".  But the creator has no beginning.  He is eternal.  So Jesus is not the creator!  And John 1:1 agrees with Philippians 2:6  in saying that Jesus had divine attributes even if he is not the creator.  It says Jesus was "theos", not "ho theos". Both texts are careful to say Jesus was not THE God (in Greek).

I have commented on anarthrous "theos" several times previously and given authorities on the translation of that usage but I have recently acquired a copy of that massive repository of textual scholarship, The Companion Bible.  Its editor/author,  E. W. Bullinger, was theologically conventional but even he notes that anarthrous "theos" indicates divine qualities rather than the supreme being.  The qualities he suggests are conventional: "Infinite", "eternal" etc but those are his speculations.  The important thing is that he recognizes that "theos" and "ho theos" are not the same thing.  Neither Paul nor John are explicit on what were the divine qualities that Jesus had but his existence as a spirit being would seem to be the obvious interpretation, or at least the most parsimonious interpretation.

While we are discussing anarthrous Greek nouns, I might note that "arche" in John 1:1 is anarthrous too.  So it could reasonably be translated as "In a beginning was the Word".  That would seem to be an explicit claim that Christ was created. I can see a way around that conclusion but that is the obvious conclusion.

And for those who would use the predicate status of "theos" as a get out of jail free card, I have dealt with that elsewhere.

Monday, November 16, 2015

More on Philippians 2:6

In my reading of the Bible I treat the text with great respect. With the obvious exception of parables and clearly Gnostic passages in the writings of John, I take it that the text means what it says and says what it means.  And as an atheist I have no reason to do otherwise.  I have no doctrinal position to defend. My interest is historical.  I like to get back to what the text actually says and ignore the often pagan interpretations that have been laid on it by centuries of Christian writing.

And Philippians 2:6 is one of those passages that have been much subject to interpretation -- which is why I recently tried to point out the plain and simple meaning of what was being said there.

A reader has however drawn my attention to what the theologians  and exegetes say on the subject so I thought it might be useful to comment on that.

In my initial comments, I started out with the passage as given in the KJV, which laboured under the fact that a critical Greek word -- harpagmon -- in the text was quite rare and therefore of unclear meaning. Following the precedents they had, the KJV translators rendered it as "robbery", which has caused much debate.

Ever since the Revised Standard Version came out, however, something of a consensus has emerged that harpagmon means more or less the opposite of robbery.  I quote the RSV passage:

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped"

So it DENIES that Christ was equal with God -- much as John 14:28 does and directly in contradiction to the borrowed pagan doctrine of the trinity.

But you can't win 'em all, so the RSV translation of the Greek "isa" (as "equal") in that text is contentious.  A word in one language often has no exact equivalent in another language but the Liddell & Scott lexicon gives "is" as the normal prefix for indicating that two things are LIKE one another.  So a straightford translation of the text that fits in with Paul's use of "morphe" in the same sentence would be:

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count being LIKE God a thing to be grasped"

But you can see why they did not use that translation. It once again says that Jesus was NOT God.  He was both in the "morphe" of God and "isa" God.

And "grasped" is still a bit ambigouous, which is why I originally suggested "hang on to" as the clearest and most straightforward translation.

So the in-context meaning of the text is that a godlike being became a human being -- which is, of course, the central Christian claim and in accord with the rest of the NT:  In no way a strained claim, a perfectly straightforward claim.

Paul is however vague about in exactly what way Christ was Godlike.  He spoke of Christ having the "form" ("morphe" in Greek) of God but what exactly did he mean by that.  The most common more explicit meaning of "morphe" is "shape".  But does God have a shape?  That was surely not what Paul meant.  Elsewhere in the NT, Paul is big on there being a spirit world with many inhabitants so once again context can guide us to the view that Paul was speaking of a spirit form.  And that makes perfect sense of the text: Paul was saying that a spirit being became a human being.

So, on to the theological points raised by my correspondent:

I see Paul's letter as a pastoral one -- a letter explaining things to a Christian congregation, not some fancy bit of Greek philosophy. But some commentators dispute its classification as pastoral and call it "a basic Greco-Roman 'letter of friendship'".  As Paul was a learned man in Greek thinking, that could be -- and complex interpretations of it in terms of Greek philosophy might  be justified.  But that is not what Paul actually said.  In the opening verses of the epistle, he is perfectly clear what his letter is. From the NIV:

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now"

There is nothing formal in that.  It is a humble greeting to the whole congregation.  And he goes on throughout the letter to give advice, which is what "pastoral" means.  So the letter is meant to be understood by the whole congregation, not just by learned men.  Interpretations of it as anything other than simple are therefore unwarranted.

Discussing what is meant by Jesus having the "form" ("morphe") of God, J.B. Lightfoot, however says:

"It remains then that morphe must apply to the attributes of the Godhead.  In other words, it is used in a sense substantially the same which it bears in Greek philosophy"

As it happens, however, I think Lightfoot's interpretation is unusual even in the context of classical Greek.  Liddell & Scott is the usual authority on classical Greek meanings and the synonyms for morphe that they give are: form, shape, figure, fashion, appearance, kind, sort.  And all of those synonyms make clear that Jesus had something in common with god. They do not allow an interpretation that Jesus WAS god.

So I can see no reason to inject Greek philosophy into an interpretation of the text.  Once the confusion caused by the mistranslation of "harpagmon" etc. is cleared away, the passage is quite straightforward.

It is however something of a wonder that, in such a short text, three Greek words can be mistranslated.  It shows how ready people have been to twist scripture to fit their doctrinal preconceptions.

Incidentally, the translation in the New English Bible is quite good. The NEB aims at elegance so the translation is a rather free one but it conveys the overall meaning well.  It reads "For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God".  Once again we see that Jesus was like God but not God.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Philippians 2:6

This scripture has the unfortunate combination of being theologically significant while also being hard to translate. Verses 5-7 in the King James version read as follows:

5 "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men"

Which implies that Jesus was equal with God.  Yet Jesus himself said: "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28).  Trinitarians wriggle around that in their usual pagan way but it is a pretty blatant contradiction. 

And the whole interpretation depends heavily on the meaning of one Greek word: "harpagmon". It is mostly translated as "robbery" but it is a very rare word so firming up the meaning of it is difficult.  I have a list of 7 different translations of it from 7 different Bible scholars.

Thanks to the immense resources for Bible study that American Christians have put online, I was even able to check the translation of "harpagmon" in the Wycliffe Bible, the first translation of the Bible done in a vernacular language -- albeit in Middle English.  Its version is:

"which when he was in the form of God, deemed not raven, that himself were even to God"

But "raven" there is metaphorically equivalent to "robbery" in modern or Early New English so adds nothing to our present enquiries.

And, even more importantly, the KJV/Wycliffe translation "the form of God" above is misleading.  The original Greek is "morphe theou", literally "of god form".  The definite article is not used in the Greek so it is not the central God of the Christians that is being referred to at all.  The text simply says that Jesus was godlike or of divine essence -- "a god", if you like. There are many spirit beings in Heaven so it is implied that Jesus was simply one of them, not the big boss over all.

Even without relying on fine points of Greek grammar, however, it should be clear that when Paul said Jesus was "morphe theos" he was in fact making clear that Jesus was NOT God.  Jesus was simply in the form or shape of a god.  If Paul had wanted to say that Jesus WAS God ("ho theos") there was nothing to stop him.  But he was careful to claim only that Jesus had something in common with God  -- his form or shape, probably meaning only that he was a spirit being.  That Paul did believe in spirit beings we read at some length in 1 Corinthians 15.

Given all that, I think the meaning of the text as a whole is quite clear.  I would translate it as: "who, although being of divine form did not try to hang on to that but [became a man]"

So I translate "harpagmon" as "hang on to", which makes perfect sense of the passage as a whole. I interpret "harpagmon" in context, in other words.  And I am not going far out on a limb in doing that. "something to cling to", "something to hold on to" are used by other translators.  See here.

So there is no contradiction with John 14:28.  The humility of a spirit being becoming flesh is simply being pointed out.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

What does "Amen" mean?

A word that at least a billion people have used but who knows what it means?

It's Hebrew and at the end of a prayer it means roughly "So be it" or "I agree"!  But that is not the end of it.  It has a broader meaning than that.  When Jesus said:  "Verily, verily, I say unto you ...." (e.g. in John 5:24), what word do you think he was using according to the original Greek text that was translated as "verily"?  That's right.  He was actually saying:  "Amen, amen, I say unto you".  So it's basically just a way of emphasizing the correctness of something. 

I must admit that I was rather staggered myself when I wondered what the obsolete English word "verily" stood for in the original text and found myself staring at "Amen" when I looked up my authoritative Westcott & Hort text.  I couldn't believe my eyes for a minute.  I even checked it in the Griesbach recension as well.

On further checking in my Abbott-Smith lexicon I see that the word was also used in the Septuagint:  The translation into Greek of the OLD Testament that Christ and the Apostles usually quoted from.  So we see how a Hebrew word got into Greek.  It has no exact translation into Greek so the learned Jewish translators of the OT in olden times simply reproduced it.  Abbott-Smith offers "be firm" as the meaning of the Hebrew original.

Even my Liddell & Scott lexicon of CLASSICAL Greek gives the word  a brief mention, maybe because of its Septuagint usage. We learn every day.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Context, context!

As regular readers here will be aware, every now and again I get an unfortunate urge to revisit theological matters -- so I have been browsing through various scriptures today.  And in all my comments on such matters I always stress how looking at the context of a Bible passage can be very enlightening in showing what is actually meant.  And today I have noted a fairly hilarious thing that context does in Matthew 16.

Matthew 16 is of course home to the passage where Christ allegedly gave Peter keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Catholics base their  claims about the Pope on that passage.  I sent my son to a Catholic school so I have no animus against Catholicism but I have always seen the relationship between that passage and the Pope as poorly founded.

I have just noted, however, something that makes the Roman claim not only poorly founded but downright hilarious.  Just a few verses after the "keys" passage Jesus says this to Peter: 

"But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men"

So if Peter was the first Pope, we have the authority of Jesus himself that the Pope was Satanic  -- plus some other unholy attributes!

Some old-time Protestants would agree  -- JR

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The NET Bible

A Bible translation specifically designed for the internet?  That is what the NET Bible started out as being but you can get various printed copies of it now.  It was designed to be freely quotable without copyright restrictions but now has copyright restrictions.

All a bit confusing but it does retain one of its original virtues:  Because space on the net is a lot cheaper than paper, the version comes complete with VERY extensive notes, probably as extensive as the old Companion Bible, which was a HUGE tome.

So I was interested in how the NET translators handled John 1:1, in which John stresses the role of Jesus as God's messenger.  John puts that very strongly from the beginning by referring to Jesus as God's WORD. 

The straightforward meaning of the text is however generally distorted by the Trinitarian thinking of the translators.  John stresses that Jesus is an ancient spirit being who became  incarnated but specifically rules out the idea that Jesus is also the Creator (everything was done THROUGH (di) him, not BY him).  Most translators glide over that bit however.  They say:  "The word was God", creating the impression that Jesus was the creator.

The trouble is that in the ancient Greek the usage of the word for "the" was different, and John wrote in the Greek way  whereas the translators usually do not.  Furthermore, whoever you regarded as the chief God was always referred to in ancient Greek as THE God (ho theos).  To the pagans that was mostly Zeus and in the New Testament, exactly the same expression was used for the one God of the Hebrews.  So any reference to "God" in the English NT is a translation of "The God" in the original Greek.  The "The" is normally dropped in English but is regularly used in Greek. 

But if the "the" (ho) is dropped in Greek that is a very different story.  And John DOES drop it in John 1:1.  John refers to the creator as "ho theos" but Jesus is merely "theos".

So what does it mean when John refers to the creator as "ho theos" and Jesus as "theos"?  In normal Greek usage the noun without the "the" becomes indefinite and can be translated in John 1:1 as either "a god" or "divine".  So what John is saying quite clearly  is that the Word was NOT the creator, even though Jesus in his pre-human form was also an ancient spirit being.

The idea that there is more than one spirit being in Heaven is of course no particular problem. We read of angels there and Paul promised the early Christians that they would become spirit beings too.

So the plain meaning of John is disliked by trinitarians who are convinced that Jesus is in some puzzling way also the creator.  So they translate "kai theos een ho Logos" as "the Word was God" when a literal translation would be "the word was a god".

I could go on about exceptions  in Greek grammar for the use of the definite article but verse 4 shows John was using the article in the regular way I have outlined.  What I have said above is just scene-setting, however.  I want to look at how the NET Bible treats the passage.

They have extensive notes on it and discuss fairly fully the issues I have outlined.  They say, for instance: 
"Colwell’s Rule is often invoked to support the translation of θεός (theos) as definite (“God”) rather than indefinite (“a god”) here....  The translation “what God was the Word was” is perhaps the most nuanced rendering, conveying that everything God was in essence, the Word was too. This points to unity of essence between the Father and the Son without equating the persons....  The construction in John 1:1c does not equate the Word with the person of God (this is ruled out by 1:1b, “the Word was with God”); rather it affirms that the Word and God are one in essence.

So, knowing all that, what translation do they give in their main text?  They give: "The Word was fully God"  -- which is just about the opposite of what they knew the passage to mean!  Disgraceful!

So I am not impressed by the NET Bible either.

Another Bible translation  that is famous for its footnotes is the old Geneva Bible, a translation even older than the KJV.  And in their footnotes they interpret the passage to mean that the Word was of "the selfsame essence or nature" as the creator, which is pretty fair.  Once again, I find that a translation from the early days of Protestantism is more respectful of the original Bible text than are most modern versions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The NIV as a servant of Protestant theology

The "New International Version" translation of the Bible has been very widely adopted in Protestant circles but its claim to be a faithful rendering of the original texts is hollow.  I am not alone in seeing it as the servant of Protestant theology,  as  the examples here show --but I thought it might be useful to add a couple of other examples which I regard as rather gross and which may be a bit clearer than the examples given in the link above.

In Genesis 2:4 the KJV refers to "the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens".  That is of course a bit inconvenient  -- did creation take one day or seven days? -- so my 1978 edition of the NIV simply replaces "the day that" with "when".  That is a perfectly reasonable  theological interpretation of the original text but it is not what the original text actually says.  The Hebrew word concerned means simply  "in the day".  See here.

And the revised NIV issued last year seems to be even worse than my original 1978 edition.  As soon as I heard that it featured "inclusive" language I resolved not to buy it.  When political correctness steamrollers what the Bible writers actually wrote, we know we are in the Devil's hands.  If they cannot translate pronouns accurately, what hope is there for accuracy  in more difficult passages? 

As it happens, however,  a reader has sent me an excerpt, apparently from the new edition, which renders 1 Corinthians 20, 21 as:

"So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk".

But the word "private" is a complete interpolation that is not even in the 1978 NIV edition.  There is no such word in the original Greek  -- only the word "idion" (own).  The point of the interpolation is an attempt to undermine the meaning of verse 20, which rather clearly denies that the communal meals of the early Christians constituted a celebration of the Lord's Supper  -- as I pointed out on 17th..

So the NIV is thoroughly polluted.  It is a work of theology as much as a translation and should be avoided by anyone interested  in what the Bible writers actually said.

But not everybody can go back to the original languages so what translation do I recommend?  Perverse as it undoubtedly seems, I use the original KJV version from the year 1611.  It is actually a pretty literal translation.  I think  that they had more respect for what the Bible actually said back then.

The recensions of the original texts that they had back then -- such as "Stephanus" -- were undoubtedly inferior to modern recensions such as Nestle but all recensions are around 99% identical anyway.  I wish I could say the same for translations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Lord's supper

The Lord's supper is a central event in Christian life.  Just about all Christian denominations commemorate it at Easter (though the Eastern Orthodox are a bit pesky about when Easter is) and, in the form of the Mass, devout Catholics can commemorate it every day if they wish.

So where does Christian practice in the matter come from?  Is it Biblical?  Sort of.  Below are the commandments concerning it in  the Bible.

Mark 14
[22] And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.
[23] And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
[24] And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
[25] Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

Matthew 26
[26] And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
[27] And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;
[28] For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
[29] But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.

Luke  22
[14] And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him.
[15] And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer:
[16] For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
[17] And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:
[18] For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
[19] And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
[20] Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

1 Corinthians 11
[20] When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.
[21] For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.
[22] What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.
[23] For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
[24] And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
[25] After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
[26] For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.
[27] Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
[28] But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
[29] For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.
[30] For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
[31] For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
[32] But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.
[33] Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.
[34] And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come.

"This do in remembrance of me" is pretty plain but at the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, I want to ask what "This" is.  Was it not a Passover celebration and is it not a special celebration of the Passover that Jesus commanded?  I think any Christian who was  careful to obey Christ's commands would do so by  observing the Passover.  You can draw other inferences about what "This" is but why run the risk of getting it wrong?

Against that proposition, however, we have the account of early Christian practice from Paul in Corinthians.  Theologians claim that it describes a celebration that went on whenever there were meetings of the original congregations.  So it was much more frequent than the Passover, which is annual.

To me that seems however totally perverse.  Paul starts out saying that "When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper".  How plain can you be?  Paul is saying exactly the opposite of what the theologians claim.  Apparently, there was a custom of a communal meal at meetings of the early Christian congregations and Paul is CONDEMNING that.  He says it defiles the SACRED meal of the Lord's supper.  Read the passage with that understanding and see if it makes sense.  To me it seems the only way to get a straightforward meaning out of it.  Theologians really have to twist themselves into a pretzel to get their meaning out of it, particularly in the light of verse 20.

So the whole of Christian practice in the matter seems fundamentally flawed to me.  And from that flow other  perverse responses to Christ's command.  The "this" that he commanded was a meal around some sort of table, probably where the meal was taken in the form of a Greek symposium -- that is,  where the diners were reclining rather than sitting up straight. I gather that a  Pesach seder in some Jewish circles is still done that way.  Be that as it may, however, there was certainly no kneeling or standing involved, unlike common Christian practice.

And perhaps it's a minor point of detail but the passing out of the bread and the wine were two quite separate events with a separate prayer before each.  That too seems to be unknown in  Christian practice.

And I won't go on about the wafers, grapejuice etc. which various Christian denominations substitute for the perfectly straightforward unleavened bread and wine.  Why are they so disrespectlful of their proclaimed Lord?  The connection between Christianity and the Bible gets very slender at times.

So there is only one commemoration that Christ commanded  -- not Easter and not Christmas -- and Christians bungle that.  But I guess their Lord is merciful.  It is a good thing that the Christian god is not as demanding as Yahveh, though.  Religious  Jews have a much tougher time than Christians.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exodus, Moses and Zipporah

I have been reading Exodus again.  Trouble ahead!  By general agreement, Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible.  Look it up and you will see what I mean.  Out of the blue it tells us  that Yahveh wanted to kill Moses.  No preamble, no explanation.  But Zipporah (wife of Moses) saved Moses from death by circumcising one of her sons

What gives?  The most usual answer is that Moses had got behind on his circumcising of his sons and Yahveh was mad about that.  So when Zip did the deed (with a sharp rock!) Moses was off the hook.

But the text doesn't say that.  It does not say what got Yahveh mad.  And what Zip said when she did the cut doesn't seem to relate to anything anyway.  She touched Moses's feet with the detached flesh and said:  “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me".  Was it some sort of wedding?

So what is a "bridegroom of blood" anyway and why did that mollify Yahveh?

I think I can suggest a very tentative answer:  Blood was identified with life in the OT and the Israelites were even forbidden to eat the blood of their animals (Leviticus 17:14).  Hence Kosher slaughter to this day. No black pudding for Jews!  So spilling blood was a big-deal sort of sacrifice and Yahveh liked sacrifices.  And the point of Zip's words was that she and Moses were joint authors of that sacrifice.

And why was Yahveh mad at Moses in the first place?  Because Moses had been a big-time foot-dragger (what's the Yiddish for people like that?) up until that point.  Yahveh had to wheedle him to undertake his mission to Egypt.  So Yahveh  simply got fed up with Moses. 

If my account of Yahveh portays him in a very human light, forgive me.  Exodus does the same.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Akhnaten and Moses  -- a connection?

The first monotheist known to secular history was the "heretical" Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten.  To him the sun was the only God.  When he died all his temples were torn down and much was done to erase his memory. Traditional Egyptian polytheism resumed.

So what about those Egyptians who had accepted Akhnaten's religion -- which after all was a pretty commonsense one  --  You could see the sun moving about and feel its importance? The presence of other gods was much less evident.

So it is reasonable to believe that the Akhnaten cult was hard to erase and many true believers might have remained.  Such believers would however be seen as a threat to the restored state religion and would no doubt have been persecuted. 

And at the height of the persecution might they not have fled Egypt across the Sinai and into lands out of the immediate control of the Pharaohs -- Pharaohs who would indoubtedly have been weakened by the Akhnaten episode. And might they not have been led by a priest of Akhnaten named Moses?

So I wonder why the Israelites of old are not generally seen as remnants of the Akhnaten cult?  The dates are reasonably close.  Some put the Akhnaten cult before the Biblical exodus and some put it after.  But both Biblical and Egyptian chronology contain considerable uncertainties so there is no real chronological reason to exclude the hypothesis.  And one might note that the troubles of the Israelites in Egypt began when a "new king" came to power (Exodus 1:8).

The main reason for not making the identification would be that the Israeli God is not a sun God.  He is more a personal God whom Moses and his assistant used to meet face-to-face (Exodus 33:11) and who was handy with stone carving and who thought it was very important to cook a young goat the right way (Exodus 34:1-26).  But this personalization of the Deity (by Moses?) and giving him a personal name (Yahweh/Jehovah -- See Psalms 83:18) was a normal thing among the people of the times so I don't really see that as a major difficulty.  That monotheism should have arisen in two neigbouring places at roughly the same time seems more than a coincidence to me.  So am I alone these days in thinking that?  I seem to be almost alone.   Sigmund Freud mentioned the theory back in the '30s but it does not seem to have caught on.  Though there is a slightly different  exploration of it here.

I can understand that believers in the literal interpretation of the Bible might object to my account as the Biblical account is very detailed and yet has no mention of a monotheistic Pharaoh.  But most historians of the period are not Biblical fundamentalists  so it is their silence which rather puzzles me.

Even many Christians who see the Bible as inspirational history rather than literal history should, it seems to me, find an independent record of the emergence of monotheism in roughly the same time and place as useful (if broad) confirmation of one of the foundational event of Israel's history.

Just in passing, I note that it is fairly clear that the Torah is not literal history.  As Wikipedia says:

"According to Exodus 12:37-38, the Israelites numbered "about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children," plus many non-Israelites and livestock. Numbers 1:46 gives a more precise total of 603,550. The 600,000, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites would have numbered some 2 million people, compared with an entire Egyptian population in 1250 BCE of around 3 to 3.5 million. Marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, they would have formed a line 150 miles long.  No evidence has been found that indicates Egypt ever suffered such a demographic and economic catastrophe or that the Sinai desert ever hosted (or could have hosted) these millions of people and their herds."  -- for 40 years at that.

I would see the numbers given as a way of stressing that Moses  had a big  following.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

JOHN 8:58 does not necessarily mean what it seems

"Jesus said unto them, "truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am". (RSV).

This scripture is routinely compared to Exodus 3:14, where we read of Yahweh: "God said unto Moses, "I AM WHO I AM". And he said "Say this to the people of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you"". (RSV).

Just a few notes: The Exodus statement was made in response to a request from Moses for God to identify himself. And the reply (understandably?) "I am who I am" is simply impatient. I believe that I myself have at times said "I am who I am" in response to certain challenges. And the second part, "I am has sent me", just carries on the impatience of God with Moses's request for identification. But God gives in to Moses in the next verse and identifies himself as "Yahweh", the traditional god of the Hebrews. So while the theologians have made much of this passage, it is hardly the claim to uniqueness that they often assert. It just shows that the Hebrew god was a rather human figure who got impatient with people not knowing who he was -- and who handed out carved stone tablets and various other things.

Moving on to John 8:58 and the expression "I am" there: The Greek expression Jesus used here is "Ego eimi" -- which is the first person singular form of the verb "to be" in Greek. Its meaning is not however as straightforward in Greek as it is in its English counterpart. It is quite imprecise and can be translated in a number of ways. Even in that particular passage, translators differ on their rendering of it. Some authorities suggest "I have been" but the suggestion I like best is "I am he". That translation fits the text best, it seems to me. He was, after all, answering the enquiry, "Have you seen Abraham?". And in other passages of the NT (e.g. John 14:9) "eimi" is routinely translated as "have been".

So Jesus was certainly claiming to be an ancient being but the statements in Exodus and John are clearly not comparable. And in fact the case and tense structures of Hebrew and Greek are very different so any exact comparability would in any event be fanciful.

What Jesus actually said in his native Aramaic, we can only guess of course. We have only John's report in Greek.

For what it is worth, John would have been well aware of the ancient and widely used translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek -- The Septuagint -- and the Septuagint renders Exodus 3:14 as “EGO EIMI HO OHN,” meaning “I am the being” or "I am the one", so again comparability between the two texts is lost. If John had seen Jesus's Aramaic words as a reference to Exodus 3:14, he would presumably have translated them into Greek in the same way that the ancient Jewish translators behind the Septuagint did.

That John in fact chose a Greek expression that is capable of at least two different meaings is however well in keeping with his Gnostic tendencies. Gnosticism (the pretence of secret knowledge) was around long before Christ and it did eventually infect Christianity. There were various gnostic Christian sects from the second century on. John, however, does appear to have written quite late in the first century so may perhaps be regarded as the first of the Christian Gnostics. The book of Revelations, in particular, reads very much like a Gnostic text, with its constant use of symbolism.

So John took advantage of the various uses of "eimi" to make one of his Gnostic utterances. Compare John 1:1, where his clever use of an anarthrous predicate also leads most Greekless people into thinking he is saying more than he is. He was obviously a very competent Greek stylist.

So John was not being deceitful in using the the words he did. He was just being vague -- perhaps with the aim of saying that REAL Christians would be able to untangle the intended meaning, which is a very Gnostic thing to do. And at the time that was probably no difficulty. But with the impossibility of exactly translating all Greek tenses into languages with different verb structures, misunderstandings have certainly developed.

As someone who has often battled with translating German into English (which are after all two closely related languages) I am confident in saying in fact that ALL translations are only approximations. I comment on that at greater length here. On some occasions you do have to study the original texts to get an accurate sense of the passage.

I can't resist adding a few more comments about the Septuagint. The Torah section of it (including Exodus) is quite ancient and the oldest surviving manuscripts of the OT are in fact mostly of the Septuagint. And there are quite a few places where the Septuagint and the Masoretic (Hebrew) text differ in meaning, though the differences are not usually greatly important.

It used to be automatic among Bible translators to prefer the Masoretic renderings and dismiss the Septuagint as "freely" translated. A widely held view among textual scholars these days, however, holds that the Septuagint was based on a pre-Masoretic version of the Hebrew text and that its renderings are therefore at least as likely to represent the lost original texts as are the Masoretic renderings. In which case the less enigmatic Septuagint rendering of Exodus 3:14 might reasonably be preferred. So YHWH might originally have been recorded as saying not "I am who I am" but rather something like “I am the being” or "I am the one".

Note finally that the apostle Paul normally quoted from the Septuagint in his epistles. How's that for a headspinner?

I would think that in the circumstances a really serious Christian Bible student (are there any left?) would be heading out to buy himself a copy of the Septuagint with an accompanying English translation. I do myself own such a volume but it is quite old so I doubt that it is still in print anywhere. For what it is worth, however, it was published by Samuel Bagster and Sons of London in 1879. Bagster had a most comprehensive range of Bible study aids but with the decline of Biblical scholarship they have now gone out of business. There is however a translation only here that sounds useful. The most "official" translation of the Septuagint at the moment is here but I don't like the assumptions underlying it at all at all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My take on an ancient controversy

The Roman Catholic church claims special authority for itself on account of the alleged fact that the disciple Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and that Christ had given Peter special powers that Peter passed on to later bishops of Rome. The Bishop of Rome is these days referred to as the Pope, which simply means "father". So there are 3 claims there in need of validation.

1). There is no mention in the NT that Peter was ever in Rome. It was Paul who went to Rome according to the NT. But could Peter have followed on later? If so, such an important event would surely have been noted somewhere at the time in the 1st century. The Catholic Encyclopedia can rustle up just 3 alleged 1st century references:
"Earlier still is Clement of Rome writing to the Corinthians, probably in 96, certainly before the end of the first century. He cites Peter's and Paul's martyrdom as an example of the sad fruits of fanaticism and envy. They have suffered "amongst us" he says, and Weizsaecker rightly sees here another proof for our thesis.

The Gospel of St. John, written about the same time as the letter Clement to the Corinthians, also contains a clear allusion to the martyrdom by crucifixion of St. Peter, without, however, locating it (John 21:18, 19).

The very oldest evidence comes from St. Peter himself, if he be the author of the First Epistle of Peter, of if not, from a writer nearly of his own time: "The Church that is in Babylon saluteth you, and so doth my son Mark" (1 Peter 5:13). That Babylon stands for Rome, as usual amongst pious Jews, and not for the real Babylon, then without Christians, is admitted by common consent (cf. F.J.A. Hort, "Judaistic Christianity", London, 1895, 155).

It should be obvious that these are all weak reeds to lean upon.

What did Clement mean by "amongst". That it meant "in Rome" is just one interpretation. Since Clement was bishop of Rome, however, it may be this selfsame sly allusion that gave rise to the later belief that Peter reached Rome. As Bishop of Rome, Clement would have an obvious interest in fostering such a myth.

I pass over the second "reference" in polite silence.

The third reference asserts that there were no Christians in Babylon at the time. But there certainly were Jews and the famous Babylonian Talmud eventually emerged as the product of their deliberations. So it is entirely plausible that Peter did go there in an attempt to make converts and had some success. So this passage too is no proof of anything.

I would have entertained the idea that "Babylon" was symbolic if the reference had come from a sometimes gnostic writer like St. John but Peter writes a perfectly straightforward book of instructions. I think we must take him at his word. He went to Babylon, not Rome.

2). Special powers conferred? The basis for this claim is the passage in Matthew 16:18. "And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."

Transliterating the relevant Greek of the original we get: "ou ei petros kai epi tautee tee petra oikodomeeso mou teen ekkleesian". That shows that Christ was using two different words for Peter and the rock upon which he was to build his "church'. He was making a distinction, not an equation. I go into more detail about the Greek passage here

An issue seldom addressed, however, is that Christ spoke Aramaic, not Greek. So what we read in Matthew is itself a translation. So what was Christ most likely to have been saying in Aramaic?

Alfred Persson has done the most extensive exploration of the Aramaic background to the text but he really rambles on so I will try to summarize: He points out that "petros" is the Aramaic word for "firstborn" but that it was also known at the time (educated Israelites at the time spoke Greek, as indeed did educated Romans) that the same word in Greek meant "rock". So Jesus was using that known double meaning to make a point vivid.

What point? What was the rock upon which he would build his group of followers? That is no mystery at all. There are numerous references in the NT which equate Jesus's TEACHINGS with a rock -- e.g. Matthew 7:24; 1 Corinthians 10:4. So Jesus expected his teachings to form the foundation of a new group. He was certainly right about that! To encourage his followers, Jesus then goes on to say that the wisdom he imparts is very special indeed. It will give his followers entry into the kingdom of heaven. So the new group will be a privileged one indeed. Orthodox teachings among the Israelites at the time foresaw a resurrection to life on earth, not a transformation into spirit beings.

But what about: "And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Catholics claim that the passage gives Christians on earth the power to control events in Heaven. But that is surely absurd. Christ was surely saying that his teachings are an accurate guide to what has already been bound or loosed in Heaven.

3). But say we ignore all of the above and concede that Peter was given some special power. Where is there any statement or evidence in Christ's words that this power could be passed on? There is none. So all three of the Roman claims are mere assertions with no obvious truth value.