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.