Sunday, November 22, 2015


Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 18, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, November 17, 2015



Agreement between Philippians 2:6 and John 1:1

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, November 16, 2015




More on Philippians 2:6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2015



Philippians 2:6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.