Tuesday, March 14, 2017
John 1:1 -- one more foray
I suppose I am a bit obsessed with the meaning of the first verse of the gospel of John. I have written enough on it (e.g. here and here). But it bugs me that a simplistic bit of translation has totally distorted the meaning of the passage.
In English Bibles, John 1:1 is normally translated as: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God".
But that's nuts. How can you both BE god and be WITH god? It's logically self-contradictory. By saying you are WITH someone you imply that you are NOT that someone. So what gives? Was the holy apostle John talking nonsense? He was not. What he wrote in the original Greek of the New Testament was quite different from what we read in most English Bibles.
But I can't altogether blame the translators. Translating it literally does make for ponderous English. So why not do it the simple way?
To show you what I mean, here is the closest I can get to an exact translation: "In a beginning was the word and the word was with the god and the word was of god-substance." You see what I mean. It sounds a bit weird. Note "THE god".
As I mentioned recently, it all goes back to the way holy Jews long ago stopped referring to the name of their god -- which was YHWH ("Jehovah" in English). So they referred to him by generic terms such as "Gods" or "Lord" ("elohim" or "adonay" in Hebrew).
YHWH tells us most emphatically that he is very proud of his name, wants it used reverently and wants it known worldwide that he is supreme. See the Ten Commandments and Psalm 83:18. He is so emphatic about it in Psalm 83:18 that even the King James Bible renders the name as "Jehovah" rather than with their usual practice of substituting "the LORD" for YHWH. So it is a huge irony that the worshippers of YHWH do exactly the opposite of what he clearly commands.
And that confusion carried on into New Testament times. Because the Jewish god had no name, the New Testament writers couldn't identify their god very clearly either. They referred to him as "the God" ("ho theos") -- which is how Greeks referred to the local god, whoever he may be. In the ancient world there were lots of gods and it depended on where you were to find out which god you most likely worshipped. So right from the beginning, John 1:1 was going to have some ambiguity
A non-Jewish speaker of Greek would have taken the text to be very vague indeed, amounting to a claim that a mysterious someone was with the local god of the writer at some beginning and that the mysterious someone was made out of the same stuff as the local god was. And that is EXACTLY what it means. We see more in it than that because we know its religious context
Most Christians go in for vagueness there too. They see it as justification for their theological "Trinity" doctrine -- and that's as vague as it gets -- saying that Jesus and God are the same yet different -- which is also logically self-contradictory.
I note that even the latest Zondervan Study Bible (using the latest version of the NIV) concedes in its notes that the meaning of "with god" is, "The word is distinct from God the father and enjoys a personal relationship with him". That is pretty right -- but how you get a Holy Trinity out of it is the mysterious part.
I am not going to start mentioning anarthrous predicates and the fine points of the Greek grammar involved. I have done that on several previous occasions. Suffice it to say that my rendering of what the passage actually means now seems to be mainstream among textual scholars. See e.g. here.
And nor is it a modern translation. Another Bible translation is the old Geneva Bible, a translation even older than the KJV. It was the translation that the Pilgrim Fathers mainly used. 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.
Note: I might in passing recommend the latest Zondervan study Bible. It is a massive tome with huge amounts of information. It is a worthy successor to the old Companion Bible. They are going for $33.99 at the moment from Christian Book.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
The origin of Genesis chapter 1
I have the greatest respect for Christians and I certainly don't like upsetting Christians but I am after all an atheist so sometimes I feel that I should treat the Bible in a purely scholarly way rather than as a source of religious truth. It is an immensely important document so deserves all the scholarly examination it can get. And Genesis chapter 1 is one area where scholars find something very different from what Christians believe. So I recommend at this point that Christians read no further what I have to say here.
The need for Genesis chapter 1 arose from the fact that the ancient Israelites always used the Babylonian calendar, which divided the week into 7 days. That calendar was so widespread from about 4,000 years ago that it would have been disruptive to use anything else.
So how did the Babylonian calendar arise? It arose because the Babylonians were pretty keen astronomers, who closely observed the night sky. And the big discovery they made was that most of the stars were fixed relative to one-another but five of them were not. There were five "wandering" stars that kept moving around. We know them as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Mercury and Venus.
We know that they are planets but the Babylonians had no inkling of that. It seemed to them that entities that moved among the stars must be gods and you had better respect them accordingly. But there were also two other bodies that moved about the sky: The sun and the moon.
So some very holy Babylonian had the bright idea that each of these seven gods should be regularly worshipped in a seven day cycle, so that you kept all the Gods onside. This was seen as a brilliant proposal in the ancient world and so we came to have a 7 day week. Each god got a bit of respect every 7 days. And the sun was obviously the big chief so his day was especially holy. And it still is. Most people still go to church on Sun-day.
But the Israelites were a rather rebellious and cantankerous people (as their own prophets often said) so they refused to have their main religious observations on Sunday. They chose Saturday instead -- to differentiate themselves from all the sun-worshippers around them. The pagans made Sun-day the first day of the week so the Israelites worshipped on the 7th day of the week. That was also Saturn's day but too bad about that. And Jews still worship on Saturday
The apostle Paul however didn't want to keep his followers separate from the heathens all about them. He wanted to attract heathens into his version of religious truth. So having your ceremonies on a different day from everybody else was an embarrassment to recent converts to Christianity. So Paul told the early Christians that what they did was more important than when they did it so you can have your celebrations on any day you like. So Christians gratefully went back to Sunday as their holiest day. It meant that they did not stick out so much from the pagans all around them. So Christians have gone back to a form of Sun worship.
But the Jews never did. But that left them with a problem. They vigorously rejected Sun worship so how come they used the 7 day pagan calendar that the sun worshippers did? They had to find some way of explaining their use of the 7 day calendar that did not go back to the Babylonian gods.
And Genesis chapter one was the answer. There was already a perfectly good creation story in Genesis. In our Bibles it starts from Genesis 2:4. And we know it is the original start of the Bible because it uses the divine name YHVH ("Yod He Vau He" in Hebrew) all the time, as does the rest of the Old Testament. Hebrew originally had no vowels so the original pronunciation of YHVH is a matter of debate but "Yahveh" with the "H" pronounced as in the German "Ach Laut" or the "ch" in the Scottish "loch") is most probable. Englishmen can't say that, however. Modern English has lost all its gutturals. So in English we say "Jehovah".
But tacked on in front of the original brief creation story we now have a much more elaborate creation story that tells us that the creation unfolded in 7 "days" or time periods. Voila! We now have a Jewish explanation for the use of a 7 day calendar! It was the creator himself who divided the days into a 7 day cycle. It was now nothing to do with Babylonian sun worship. Problem solved. The Babylonian explanation for a 7 days calendar had never been challenged before, though. Everybody thought it was obvious. But now there was an exception. The pesky Jews had another story.
So how do we know that Genesis chapter 1 was written as a late bit of Israelite propaganda? Easy. Genesis chapter 1 does NOT use the divine name. One would expect the creation story to be full of the name of the Hebrew god but it is in fact not to be found there. Instead of YHVH we find "elohim", which is just the name for gods generally. It is however the plural form of "god" so could naively be translated as "gods" (the singular is "Eloah", which is where Arabs get "Allah from). But it is common to use plurals as respectful forms of a word or name. The Queen of England, for instance, always refers to herself on formal occasions as "we". So the chapter 1 authors substituted a respectful form of "god" instead of the divine name.
So why is that significant? Because avoidance of the divine name is a bit of Jewish pietism that arose some time around the 3rd century B.C. In order not to use the divine name in vain, Pharisees and their like thought it safest not to use the name at all. So they didn't. And that usage was well ingrained by the time of Christ. So the New Testament does not mention YHVH. It uses "ho theos" (the god) instead, which is how the ancient Greeks referred to the local god being worshipped.
So chapter 1 clearly was written after use of YHVH became impious. It is later than the rest of the Bible, which routinely uses YHVH. And to this day, most Bible translations do not use YHVH where it occurs. The King James Bible uses "the LORD" (in all caps) where YHVH occurs in the original.
So if they were textual scholars, Christians could well argue that Genesis 1 is not really a part of the Bible. It is just a bit of Jewish propaganda. Since the creation story of Genesis 1 is often an embarrassment, that could be useful.
It is probable that the 7 day creation story was not entirely original when it was tacked on to the front of the Bible long after the rest of the Bible had been written. Tacking something new on like that would have been resisted by the priestly guardians of the text. That there was careful guardianship of the text is suggested by the similarity of the text of Isaiah found in the Dead Sea scrolls and the more modern Masoretic text (from about 800 AD).
So the 7 day creation story was likely a respected legend or oral tradition long before it was elaborated and written down for what we now know as Genesis chapter 1.
In support of that view is that we find the 7 day creation story stressed in the Exodus 20 version of the ten Commandments. Exodus is undoubtedly canonical and uses YHVH quite a lot. But could the mention in Exodus be an interpolation? Could it too have been added in later?
Alas! That is all too probable. The version of the 10 Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 does NOT contain mention of a 7 day creation. It commands a 7th day Sabbath only. That is also true of the "expanded" version of the Commandments in Exodus 34 (See verse 21).
So there is no doubt that the 7 day creation story was added on long after the rest of the Old Testament was written -- JR.
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
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.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
The New Testament canon
I think it is axiomatic that Christians accept the Bible as the word of God. If you don't accept the Bible as the word of God but still claim to be a Christian, you are some sort of hyphenated Christian. I would call Episcopalians and Anglicans generally, post-Christians. Their adoration of homosexuals flies in the face of explicit Bible teachings in both the Old and New Testaments so they clearly do not accept the Bible as the word of God.
But what is meant by "word of God"? Did God use the Bible writers as some sort of stenographers -- dictating precisely every word they wrote? People who believe that are said to be "verbal inspiration" believers. The verbal inspiration doctrine has great difficulties, however. Take the account of what happened at Christ's tomb when his followers found his body no longer there. The four gospels give rather different accounts of what happened.
In Matthew 28 for instance, we read that when the two Marys approached the tomb, a glorious angel came down and rolled away the stone.
In Mark 16 however we find that the stone had already been rolled away before they got there. So they went into the tomb and met a young man sitting in it who told them Christ was risen.
And in Luke 24 we find that the women went into the tomb and were puzzled to find it empty. But then two men in shining garments suddenly appeared beside them. And it was only after they had bowed to the men did the men tell them that Christ is risen.
And John 20 is different again. This time it was just Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb and found it empty. This time nobody appeared to her so she ran away to tell some of the disciples. So the disciples came to the tomb and examined its contents. Then the disciples just went home. But Mary stayed on. And then two angels in white appeared and told her that Christ was risen
So we have four different accounts. Was there one angel or two, for instance? The accounts are not necessarily wrong. They are about as consistent as what you get in court when different eye-witnesses to a crime are being examined. So is God as scatterbrained as four human witnesses? Surely not. If he had dictated every word he would just have given the actual events, not what looks like a set of wobbly recollections.
So few Christians now believe in verbal inspiration. They believe that the Bible writers wrote their own thoughts in their own way but God was behind those thoughts, gently guiding them in the right direction.
But then another problem arises. How do we know who had God behind their thoughts? There were many documents around in the early days which contained accounts of Christ's history and teachings. Why did they all not make it into the New Testament?
The Roman Catholic church has an answer to that. They say that the church made the pick. They say that the church knew which document was divine and knocked back the others: It was the church that assembled the NT.
That is not much of an answer however. For a start, the church at that time was almost entirely located in the Greek-speaking cities of the Eastern Mediterranean lands. Rome was a distant offshoot. So the discussion about which documents were divine occurred in the Greek churches, not in Rome. And the Greek Orthodox church does to this day with some justice regard itself as the lineal descendant of the original Christian church and say that authority about the canon belongs to them
Even if we accept the Roman claim, however, it just pushes the question back one step. How did the church know which books were divine? The only reasonable answer to that is that God influenced the minds of the men of the church to make the right decisions.
But if God was working through the minds of men, why did it have to be just one group of men? Surely it could have been men anywhere in the Christian world and not merely a few big shots in Rome! So, broadly, the answer to the question of what formed the canon is a simple one from a Christian viewpoint: If God inspired the writing of the various books, he could surely also see to it that the right ones were selected as holy!
Anne, the lady in my life is, like me, an ex-Christian and our Christian past is still influential with us both. She doesn't like the apostle Paul's view of the place of women, however -- as in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 11, for instance. Being a born tease, however, I enjoy pointing out that according to the NT, women should be submissive to their men. Anne is no feminist but she is a pretty independent lady so she doesn't like Paul at all and why is he in in the Bible anyhow?
I replied that if God inspired the Bible writings, surely he could also make sure that the right documents were included in it. On hearing that she burst into peals of laughter. I am not totally sure why but I think she saw the logic in it and realized that you could not arbitrarily exclude Paul from being a divine messenger.
So how do I think the books of the Bible were chosen? I do actually lean to an explanation that would fit in with God's guidance. The history of the matter is that there was a considerable debate in the early days about which books were new revelation -- and various collections were made which embodied particular people's view of what was divine. But after a while a consensus did emerge. And it was an inclusive consensus: Enough books were included to keep most people happy.
So was God behind that consensus? Since I am an atheist I think not but a Christian could reasonably think so. What I think happened is that those books which made most sense and sounded good at the time gradually, amid debate, came to be generally accepted as holy.
With his background in Greek learning, Paul was quite a good theologian, he wrote very energetically, wrote very extensively and he explicitly claimed divine guidance -- so it would appear that the whole available corpus of his writing was included.
And in the nature of these things, a tradition developed which saw that early consensus as authoritative.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Homosexual Bible is a fraud
There's a brief report below on a recently-released "Queen James Bible". It is a Bible in which passages that condemn homosexuality have been altered to remove the condemnation. The alterations are paraded as translations or interpretations but are in fact speciously-justified alterations, not translations. They leave out words that are in the original and insert words that are not in the original. They are a fraud.
It's just a stunt by some SanFrancisco Episcopalian clergyman and one rather wonders what it is meant to achieve. How is misrepresenting the basis of the Christian faith going to help you obtain the salvation that the faith offers?
But many Episcopalians have long ignored the clear teachings of the Bible so they are clearly mock-Christians only. Their only interest seems to be in dressing up in fancy clothes and sexual perversion, not salvation. They are not people of faith at all. If they are loyal to anyone it is the Devil. They are Satanists in drag. Judging by the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, their future is grim.
Jesus made the sexual alternatives perfectly clear in the first verses of Matthew 19: God made men and women to form unions with one another and the only alternative to that is celibacy. Jesus was actually stricter about sexual morality than the Torah is.
In addition to the one below, there are various other useful commentaries online about this latest attempt to pervert Bible teachings. See here and here, for instance
Don’t like it? Change it. That’s the approach to Scriptural translation taken by the creators of a new gay-friendly Bible.
“You can’t choose your sexuality, but you can choose Jesus. Now you can choose a Bible, too,” say the creators of the Bible, emblazoned with a rainbow cross, which was launched at the end of November.
The editors explain in a statement that they took each of the eight Bible verses traditionally used to argue that homosexuality is sinful, and edited them “in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible.”
For instance, in the first letter to Timothy, where St. Paul refers to “them that defile themselves with mankind,” the new Bible simply excises the word “mankind.”
This new translation, the editors say, will “resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality.”
Other than the eight verses in question, the Bible uses the King James translation verbatim. The “Queen James” title is based upon a theory that King James, the British king who commissioned the famous translation of the Bible, was bisexual.
But while the “homophobic” passages have been altered, the editors say that “the Bible is still filled with inequality and even contradiction that we have not addressed. No Bible is perfect, including this one.”
The homosexual news outlet Pink News has identified Reverend J. Pearson of San Francisco’s Holy Innocents Episcopal church as the mastermind behind the rainbow-themed Bible.
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
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.
 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.
 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
 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.
 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.
 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;
 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
 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.
 And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him.
 And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer:
 For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:
 For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
 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.
 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.
1 Corinthians 11
 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.
 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.
 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.
 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:
 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.
 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.
 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.
 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.
 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.
 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.
 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.
 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.