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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


In the post below I originally wrote Jude 28 when I intended Jude 25

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jude 25

I still like to browse through my King James Bible at times and in doing so recently I found a scripture that could give aid and comfort to the Trinitarians. Verse 25 of Jude reads (KJ):

To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen

So is the Saviour (Jesus) God? Sadly for the trinitarians, No. It's just a bad translation.

I don't have a copy of the old Stephanus text but I have checked three modern recensions of the original Greek text (Nestle, Griesbach and Westcott & Hort) and all have a "through" ("dia" in Greek) in the text. So the relevant text fragment translates as: "To the only God our saviour .... THROUGH Jesus Christ"

In other words God is the real saviour and he works THROUGH Jesus. The text in fact sharply distinguishes between the two rather than saying they are the same.

Check it in any modern translation

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Some more exegesis

Exegesis is the detailed examination of a text in its context -- usually a scriptural text. I became an exegete of a sort when I was about 13. It was then that I first read the Sermon on the Mount. I was thunderstruck to find that what Jesus taught was nothing like what Christians actually do. Where is the ambiguity in:
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."

Can you get plainer than that? I can't imagine it. And I am still nearly as thunderstruck to this day about the gap between what the Bible says on the one hand and what Christians and Jews do, say and believe on the other hand. One would think that they would long ago have found a book that suited them better.

I still like Christianity as we have it today, however. I attended the Good Friday service at my old Presbyterian church, for instance. See here. But it is a very poor reflection of the original faith.

I have continued to find exegesis fascinating, however, so I long ago started looking closely at what the rest of the scriptures actually say -- even delving into the original languages in which they were written where that seemed crucial. And over the years I have put up on this blog and on my scripture blog my findings about key doctrines -- including hellfire.

Rather to my amusement, however, I see that the NYT has just weighed in on hellfire. When the NYT is preaching the reality of hell, I feel that I should say a little more about some of the key scriptural texts involved.

Quick background: The word translated as "hell" in many Bibles is in the original Greek "hades", which simply means death or the grave. Translating it as "hell" is a theological statement, not a linguistic one. And knowing that wipes out most of the texts that are usually cited in support of the hellfire doctrine.

A couple of interesting texts remain, however, and today I thought I should look at one of Jesus's prophetic utterances in Matthew 25. An excerpt:
"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world ...

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal"

The "everlasting fire" into which the "goats" are cast certainly does sound like a clear formulation of a hellfire doctrine but that impression is partly an effect of a poor translation. The word translated as "punishment" is in Greek "kolasin" and it simply means "cutting off". It is the word a Greek gardener might use to describe the pruning of a tree. So it would be a defensible translation to say that the goats would be cut off and thrown away like the unwanted branch of a tree

So, when properly translated, we see that Christ was, as usual, offering the alternatives of life and death, not heaven and hell -- exactly as he does in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. The sheep get eternal life and the goats get eternal death. I guess I am a goat!

But where does the "everlasting fire" come in? To see that we have to note that Jesus was speaking figuratively for most of the passage, as he often did. His parables are famous. So is he really going to sit on a throne and muster billions of people on either side of him? If so, he would need to locate himself somewhere around Iran and even then the billions of goats would be crowded for room and many could well fall into the Mediterranean (presuming the throne was facing North).

And Jesus in fact makes it clear that he is aiming at vividness rather than precision when he notes: "as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats".

So we have to decipher what is behind the figurative language. We get a clue when we note another passage where he used the same expression. Matthew 18:
"Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire."

Again, however, we risk being misled by a quite mendacious translation. This is one occasion when the original Greek underlying the translation "hell" is NOT "hades". It is "Gehenna". And Gehenna was simply the municipal incinerator outside Jerusalem where the bodies of criminals were thrown.

So: Bingo! We now have it. We know what image of everlasting fire Jesus had in mind. He had in mind the continuously burning fire of Jerusalem's garbage incinerator. And, needless to say, the bodies thrown into Gehenna don't feel anything. They have simply died and been disposed of in an ignominious way. So both goats and the Devil are simply going to die -- but die in disgrace.

Jesus is however a careful teacher so makes sure we don't get him wrong by adding a plain language summary at the end of the Matthew 25 passage:
"And these shall go away into everlasting cutting off: but the righteous into everlasting life"

So the hellfire doctrine is another pagan borrowing. It is not Biblical.

A couple more points: Note that in the Matthew 25 passage Jesus speaks only of judging the "nations". There is no mention of the dead. So what about the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of them? Resurrection is the hope of an afterlife that is held out in both the Old and New Testaments but it is not mentioned there at all. That again tells us that Jesus was concerned to paint a vivid mental picture rather than make a precise doctrinal statement.

So, although the Bible is in general a very plainspoken book, we have to make sure that the translation is right and be careful not to take the figurative literally. And reading the whole passage is the usual key to that

Finally, the goats are on the LEFT! Did Jesus foresee the world today? (Just joking).

There is an interesting article here which describes some of the divisions in contemporary Christian thought about the nature of heaven and hell.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Do the Scriptures need interpreting?

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

As an atheist I of course have no religious interest in the scriptures but I was for many years paid a lot of money by a leading Australian university to teach sociology so I hope I may be excused for taking a sociological interest in them.

My interest is very much motivated by the historic power of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. They have been enormously influentual and I like to look at why. And in looking at why it seems important to see exactly what they say. So for a while I ran a daily Scripture blog which pointed out what they actually say -- and observed that what they say is a long way from what Christians generally believe today.

It was the Christianity of the first century that gave the huge initial impetus to the worldwide spead of Chistianity in subsequent centuries so it would seem to be that version of Christianity which is of greatest interest -- rather that the watered-down and paganized version we encounter today. And it is first century Christianity that is recorded in the Bible.

And my Scripture blog gave chapter and verse (as it were) in showing exactly where current Christianity is paganized and watered down from the first century original. And the fact that Christianity still has great influence despite being paganized and watered down is surely further testimony to the great power of the original. Even a little bit of the original Gospel is still helpful to many people.

Something that I have so far neglected to do, however, is to look at the claim made by the Catholic Church and some orthodox Jews (such as the aggressive Mr Kelley) to the effect that the Bible is THEIR book and only they can interpret it correctly. The Protestant Reformation was of course built around rejection of that claim. Most of the early Protestants said that they could read the Bible for themselves perfectly adequately and rejected any need for authoritative or learned interpretation.

I am a product of fundamentalist Protestant culture so that basic Protestant idea seems instinctively right to me. I am however a little saddened when I note that most Protestants talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Most Protestants still accept, for instance the quite mad doctrine of the triune God, which has absolutely no basis in scripture but which revives the doctrines of ancient Egypt rather well. The first person of influence to advocate it was Athanasius, an Egyptian. So I like to see what we find when we do walk the walk.

And it is my contention that the Bible is in fact very straightforward most of the time and that it therefore CAN easily be read and understood by almost everyone -- without any need for guidance from special authorities. But my asserting that is of little consequence unless I can give evidence of it. And I thought that I might today make a small start in that direction by comparing two historic pieces of religious expression. The first:
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest

The second:
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Furthermore, we must receive God's promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

It is my submission that the first is as clear as crystal and the second is as clear as mud. So what are those passages? The first is from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9) and the second is from the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England. The Bible beats theology any day.

But the Bible is TOO clear for most people. Ecclesiastes could hardly have expressed more plainly and emphatically that when you are dead you are dead: No mention of immortal souls flitting about. So that is when people start scrabbling for "interpretations". They say (for instance) that the Ecclesisstes passage is only talking about the body and that there is some mystical "soul" that lives on as well.

And if people need the comfort of that belief so be it. But the original teaching is clear. The Hebrews of Old Testament times were earth-oriented and the only aferlife they looked forward to was resurrection to life on earth at the time of the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus believed that too: "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done ON EARTH, as it is in heaven".

So it's not the Bible that needs interpretation; it is the reluctance of people to accept its teachings that gives rise to the need for interpretation.

And the passage above from the 39 articles is an example of that too. It is an attempt to reject the plain words of Ephesians chapter 1 while appearing to accept them. Ephesians says quite plainly that being one of God's chosen ones was "predestined" from "before the foundation of the world", which no doubt seems rather unfair. At the time the Calvinists (mostly Scottish Presbyterians) accepted that but the Anglicans didn't like it, presumably because it made their sacraments look rather superfluous.

And that applies equally well to Jews and Christians. The following command in the Torah (Leviticus 20:13) is crystal clear: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." But Rabbinical teachings have "interpreted" that out of existence too.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Abuse as a response to threat

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

As most conservative bloggers can attest, the comments we get on our blogs or via email from Leftists consist almost entirely of a tirade of abuse. I have always thought that the abuse is a sign of a hostile or hating character but perhaps I have underestimated their awareness of their own situation. They know that the facts and logic are against them but cannot let go of their beliefs so rage is their only possible response.

I am moved to that thought by a comment put up in response to my recent post "Is God a racist"?. In the post I addressed once again the contentious question: "Who is a Jew?". The title would, however, I hope, alert anybody to the fact that I was offering a not-very-serious tease. And, to make sure I was not misunderstood, I stated that at the foot of the piece.

Most of the comments I got about it conceded that the piece was thought-provoking but that is all. In one of the places where I posted it, however, I got the following enraged response which consisted of nothing but extended abuse. It said in effect: "I know more than you do so you are wrong" A less persuasive argument would be hard to imagine:
I'm not sure how you got this bee in your bonnet or why this is on an anti-ACLU blog.

You are not dealing with Torah in the original Hebrew or the accompanying Oral Law. There is SO much you don't know about or understand, and are filtering through your X-tian (albeit now atheist) viewpoint. Your sources are from the original via Greek, via Latin, and then into English. You lose a *lot*-- and you don't even know what you don't have. Each of those translations had its own agenda and is probelmatic when compared with the original-- why don't you discuss that?

Give it a rest. Go ahead & do this to the stuff of your tradition (X-tian). You have no idea your lack of foundation to be able to discuss Torah, and you do indeed come off as an anti-semite, despite your rationalizations and protestations.

That is of course exactly the sort of non-argument one would expect of a Leftist. He says nothing to support his assertion that he knows more and gives no detail about where my post might be mistaken. It is pure assertion.

And it is not even good assertion. He asserts that I bypass the original languages of the Bible when in fact I specifically refer to the original Hebrew in discussing the divine name. Readers of my scripture blog will know that I pay great attention to the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible -- though I must confess that I am more at ease with Greek than I am with Hebrew.

So who wrote such a sad effusion? A conservative Jew who uses the rather Portuguese-sounding nickname of "dahozho" [] but whose real name is the very Irish-sounding J. Kelley.

My arguments obviously threatened him to the point where he was unable to give an intellectual reply. Why? From the name, I would guess that he is a Jewish convert. Real Jews have a perspective going back a long way so keep their cool with relative ease.

So the polemical incompetence of Mr Kelley suggests to me that maybe Leftists too know that they are on shaky ground when they respond to challenges with abuse.


Mr Kelley has now replied to the above -- simply repeating his contempt for gentiles who think they can understand the Bible without Jewish theology to guide them!