A Word in Edgewise

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Bill Maher, What’s in Your Pool?

I don’t watch Bill Maher.  I don’t find him particularly funny (if I’m in the minority, I don’t mind.  I don’t like potty humor either).  I think he is boorish and lacking in insight.  To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: there’s nothing new except the TV audience.  Unfortunately, today’s crop of militant anti-theists, like Maher, cannot hold a candle to thoughtful atheists of the past like Bertrand Russell or Friedrich Nietzsche.  Now, let me be clear, I have great respect for humble, reflective atheists and agnostics.  I have a number of friends and colleagues with whom I disagree on matters of faith but the disagreements are agreeable.

Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourner’s, appeared on Bill Maher’s program recently and, as could be predicted, Maher took him to task.  To be frank, I don’t agree with Wallis on all matters of theology or politics but I do regard him as a warm, sincere Christian.  Like many he is following Jesus the best way he knows how.  I don’t have time or inclination to deal with the entire exchange between Maher and Wallis but let me deal with two statements made on both sides.Swimming-Pool 

In response to Maher’s attacks, Wallis made the point that religion has been used for great good in society. Most people who talk about the Bible, he said, haven’t actually read it.  He pointed out how religious people were rallying for immigration reform and how Martin Luther King was inspired by the biblical prophets.  He emphasized how often the Scriptures speak of God’s care for the poor and instructs his people to feed, clothe and care for “the least of these.”  Maher interrupted: “You’re cherry-picking the good parts.” 

Maher proceeded to criticize the Bible: “It’s pro-slavery, pro-polygamy, it’s homophobic, God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murderer—I mean, there’s so many things in it, and I always say to my religious friends, you know, if a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump in?” (Maher’s words not mine)

Two responses which are . . . easy.

First, Mr. Maher, you’re a classic cherry-picker.  You rant against all the stuff you don’t like.  You ignore the vast majority of the Bible which speaks of forgiveness, love, charity, and hope.  You accuse Jim of cherry-picking the good parts.  You’re doing the same thing.  Have the decency to recognize it.

Later in the conversation, Maher said, “Fundamentalism is just people reading what’s there and taking it literally.”  True enough, which makes Maher the biggest fundamentalist of all.  He reads the Bible without knowledge, nuance or sophistication. He reads it as flatly as any flat-earthed fundamentalist I’ve met.  More than that, he thinks that’s the way everyone else reads it too.  He boasts that he has read the Bible, but he has done so for the point of condemning others.  And here is a principle for a thoughtful person of any creed:  Whenever you learn about something for no other reason but to criticize it, then you can’t help but misunderstand it. This is why Maher cannot understand religion in general or Christianity in particular.

Maher condemns the Bible for being homophobic while he is biblio-phobic or Christophobic.  Apparently Maher thinks a person can help being religious but can’t help being homosexual.  Again, Maher misunderstands the religious aspect of human existence and how deeply people “feel” their religion.  They can no more simply hang up their religion than a gay person hang up his/her orientation.

Second, and again, this is . . . easy.  Maher criticizes the Bible: “if a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump it?”

There is a Buddhist meditation that invites devotees to take a journey inward—not just into their mind but into their bodies.  Think about what is in your body.  There are organs, muscle, fat, blood, bile, feces, gas, and urine. This is what we are made of.  This is what is in us right this moment.  Mr. Maher, you may not want to be in waste, but waste is in you. 

The point of the meditation is to come to grips with the messiness of human life.  To be human is to be, by definition, messy.  Our lives are messy.  Our relationships are messy.  Our sexuality is messy.  Our politics are messy.  And yes, our religions are messy.  We may wish to swim in a totally clean, chlorinated environment but the minute we jump in we have fouled the waters.  What human institution or organization is without some measure of messiness? 

Whatever the Christian Scriptures are, they are God’s attempt to meet us in the messiness of our human existence.  They portray us as we really are: broken, deeply flawed, angry, contentious, lustful, arrogant, insecure.  The  Scriptures come to a particular people of a particular culture in a particular language.  This is part of the messiness, for language and culture are incapable of expressing the heights, depths, and breadths of the Divine or human existence.   Ultimately, we see in the cross the depths to which God will go to meet us in our brokeness.  Fortunately, God does not leave us where he finds us.  He calls us to something greater. This is why every great university (until the 1900s) was started in the shadow of a cathedral; why hospitals have names with words like Saint, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, etc.; why when disasters hit, the first to respond are people of faith; why believers give and create charities at a pace which far outstrips those who don’t.  

When comedians and celebrities attempt discussions on serious topics, they often show themselves to be ignorant and bigoted, the same qualities they decry in others.  They prefer sound bites and banal zingers to true understanding.  They are able to get away with their prejudices because such low-level discourse is currently fashionable. Fortunately fashions change.

The Ceremonial Washing of Baptism

We receive a lot of good questions about The Voice translation through this website and our facebook page.  Recently, we received a question from a fellow named Nathan who asked why we used the phrase “the ceremonial washing of baptism” where most Bibles simply have “baptism.”  Here is part of our response to him.

 Dear Nathan,

Let me suggest you take a look at The Story of The Voice (Thomas Nelson, 2013), a brief book which describes our translation philosophy, mission and an explanation of some of our translation decisions.  Perhaps that will explain things more fully. 

Briefly, our goal was to get people who have never read or do not regularly read the Bible started reading.  Many people don’t read the Bible because they find it hard and confusing.  We did this translation for them.  Our goal was not to replace anyone’s favorite translation. If you have a treasured translation, by all means read that.  But there is a growing number of people (hundreds of millions in the USA alone) who do not read the Bible for various reasons.  We wanted to give them a Bible they would understand in order to get them started reading the Bible and hopefully hearing the Voice of the Good Shepherd.baptism-top

As to the question you raised about how we translated the Greek word “baptizein” (verb most often translated “to baptize”) and “baptismata” (noun most often translated “baptism”).  We made a strategic decision in translating The Voice not to simply transliterate key words; we translated them.  For example, the transliteration of the Greek word “baptizein” is “baptize” (simply taking the Greek letters and putting them into a Latin alphabet); but the translation of “baptizein” is “to immerse or dip in water” (taking the meaning of the word from Greek to English).  So transliteration replicates the sound of a word; translation gets at the meaning of a word. Many key words in most Bible translations have simply been transliterated (e.g., Christ, angels, baptism, apostle, etc).  In order to communicate well with new readers we thought it was important to translate.  

Now back to “baptizein” and “baptizmata”.  When people who don’t know anything about the Scriptures read “baptism,” what do they understand?  It is confusing because some Christians immerse, some dip, some pour.  And whom do they immerse, dip or pour?  Sometimes children.  Sometimes teenagers.  Sometimes adults.  And why do they do it?  As a sign of prevenient grace, or as a sacrament to signify their chosenness by God, or to mark a person’s profession of faith.  So there is a lot of imprecision in the word “baptism” for people who know little to nothing of Christian tradition.  So what do we do as translators?

Well we went back to the original context.  The antecedent to Christian baptism is likely the immersion practices of second temple Jews like John the Baptist (John the Immerser).  Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these immersion pools over the last 200 years.  It is so important that there is a tractate on immersion pools in the Mishnah.  Essentially, the purpose of these immersions involved washing or cleansing.  But the washing was not hygienic—people then knew nothing of germs–it was “ceremonial” or “ritual.”  By this is meant an action taken simply because God required it.  mikvaIf you read the OT carefully, then you realize how often God required people to wash or cleanse themselves and other things.  This is why they built all of these immersion pools around synagogues, the temple and other holy sites. Again, we’ve uncovered hundreds and we have only unearthed about 20% of the archaeological sites. So when we translated “baptizein” and its cognates we rendered it “the ceremonial washing of baptism” or “the ritual cleaning of baptism.”  The point of this translation was to help readers understand the context. Namely, baptism is a washing or cleansing which God required and is done not for and by man but for and by God.  In baptism God acts to cleanse, wash and purify.  Now there is more to the theology of baptism than this (identification with the crucified and risen Jesus, for example) but I don’t think there is less.  If you are a veteran Bible reader, then you probably know all of this.  But most people know little to nothing of this.  We did The Voice to help them. 

I hope after reading this you will understand how seriously we took the original context as well as the context of our modern audience.  That is why we call this a “contextually equivalent” translation.  I assure you it would have been much easier just to do what every Bible translation in English has done before.  But does that help modern readers who are not used to reading the Bible, read it for all its worth?  These decisions were intentional and a number of scholars, pastors, and editors thought through them before we went to print. 



How Did Simon Peter Die?

How Did Simon Peter Die?

I traveled recently to Edinburgh, Scotland.  The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is looking into the possibility of establishing a study-abroad agreement with the University of Edinburgh, and I was there to help make that connection.  While there, I attended some lectures on Simon Peter sponsored by the Center for the Study of Christian Origins (CSCO).  Founded by Professor Larry Hurtado (now retired) in the late 1990s, the center is today ably run by Dr. Helen Bond. I heard a number of good papers on the apostle Peter; though he is the best known of Jesus’ “twelve,” he is often neglected by Protestants (Protestants tend to favor Paul). Caravaggio_-_Martirio_di_San_Pietro 

One paper in particular stood out.  It was given by (retired) Professor Timothy D. Barnes.  He is a world class historian who is known for being a bit feisty.  He began his lecture recognizing full well that he was about to ruffle a few feathers. 

Many Christian scholars have thought that Simon Peter died in Rome by crucifixion.  There are a variety of early Christian reports that seem to indicate this (Tertullian, Praescr. Haer. 36.3; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.1.2).  In one tradition, Peter asks to be crucified upside-down because he is not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, his Lord (Martyrdom of Peter 8.3-4). 

Professor Barnes, however, reads the evidence differently.  He takes his cue from John 21.18-19.  Here is how these verses are translated in the New American Standard:

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” (Joh 21:18-19 NAS)

The problem with this translation, Barnes says, has to do with the Greek word translated “gird yourself.”  It is typically taken to refer to tying a belt around your waist and hitching up your outer garment for travel, work or possibly battle.  Barnes argues that the Greek verb actually means “dress yourself.”  A number of modern translations agree (English Standard Version, New Living Translation).  Here is how the NLT renders the verses:

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” (Joh 21:18-19 NLT)

Notice. This saying of Jesus let’s Peter (and John’s readers) in on the way in which Peter was going to die.  When Peter is old, he will stretch out his hands, someone else will dress him, and take him where he would rather not go.  Some have taken this as an image of crucifixion.  John goes on to say that this refers to the kind of death he would die and thereby glorify God.  A careful reader will recall that earlier in John’s Gospel, the crucifixion of Jesus is his hour of glory.  Some have taken these verses as a reminder that Peter had been crucified (The Fourth Gospel was probably written 25-30 years following Peter’s execution). 

For Barnes the problem with the crucifixion of Peter theory is this.  Men were always crucified stark naked.  You would not be dressed for it; you would be undressed (Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.53). You may recall how the soldiers divided Jesus’ garments as he suffered on the cross.  Jesus may typically be depicted with a loin cloth around his waist, but that is a matter of piety and modesty not history.  Jesus hung on the cross stark naked. If Peter had been crucified, he would have been stripped as well. But according to Barnes, he was not.

So how did Simon Peter die?  From John’s Gospel Barnes directs our attention to Tacitus (Annals 15.44.4) and the madness of Nero.  After Rome went up in flames in AD 64, Nero wanted to make an example of the Christians whom he thought were a despicable lot. He knew the public was already against them so it was convenient to make them the scapegoats. Nero, who was always a bit of a showman, wanted a spectacle; he rounded up the Christians who lived in what was left of the city and slaughtered them.  Here is how Tacitus describes it:

And, as they perished, mockeries were added, so that, covered in the hides of wild beasts, they expired from mutilation by dogs, or were burned fixed to crosses for use as nocturnal illumination on the dwindling of daylight (Barnes’ modification of the translation by A. J. Woodman). 

Barnes thinks his case is “rock solid” (a phrase he used with me over dinner after his lecture). Peter, who was present in Rome at the time, was apprehended with the rest of the Christians. He was bound by authorities and dressed in a tunic dipped in a flammable substance. He was taken and fixed to a mock cross near the banks of the Tiber River, his hands extended, and then he was set on fire.  If Barnes is correct, Peter died in the persecutions that followed Rome’s burning in AD 64 by burning not by crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation that took up to three days in some cases.  Peter’s death would have come much more quickly but the sight everyone would remember would be his charred body, formed like a cross, smoldering by the Tiber.  Peter Conference Edinburgh 2

Barnes makes a compelling case; it is historically plausible if not likely.  Still it is always difficult to move from the general to the particular.  While it is true generally that many Christians died during Nero’s persecution in this way, it is not “rock solid” (with apologies to the apostle) that a particular person named Simon Peter died on that day in that way.  More evidence is needed.  There is no physical evidence you consider as you might have with a modern crime scene investigation. Still, Barnes has a good bit to teach us.

On this occasion, the Romans wanted to mock their enemies.  You can almost hear one of them thinking:  “These despicable people love their crosses. Let’s see how much they love them after they’ve been burned to death on them.”  It wasn’t enough to put these poor souls to death; they increased the humiliation—as the Romans would have seen it—by wrapping the martyrs in animals skins or fixing them to crosses. 

But what the Romans failed to recognize was that the cross had already become a fixture in early Christian devotion.  The crucifixion of Jesus was central to their confession.  Rather than being a place of disgrace and death; it had become a symbol of honor and life.  It is no wonder that later generations of believers continued to imagine that Peter died with his arms stretched wide, embracing the world.

The Best Selling Book in Norway Is Not FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

In 2012 the best-selling book in Norway is a new translation of the Bible–yes, you heard that right, the Bible.  The Norwegian Bible is even outselling Fifty Shades of Grey.  Now this has caught a lot of people off-guard because Norway is one of the most secular countries in Europe, and Europe—as you may or may not know—has only a thin veneer left of its Christian cultural heritage.  Only about 1% of Norway’s 5 million citizens bother to go to church.Norwegian-Bible-510x287

And there is something else.  In one of Oslo’s most popular theaters there is a new, long (six hour) play called “Bibelen,” the Norwegian word for “Bible.”  Thousands of people are flocking to see the production that modernizes the Bible’s stories for a skeptical 21st century audience.

The Norwegian Bible Society released the translation in October 2011 to replace the 1978 edition.  The goal was to improve the Bible’s readability and accuracy.  In a move which sounds very familiar, they turned to poets and writers to help tell the story for a new generation.  Here is how the Norwegian Bible Society puts it on their website:

In 2000 work started on revising the 1978 translations. Five years later the New Testament was published and the full Bible in both languages will be finished in 2011. In addition to the principle of using a modern and easily understood language, the translators now emphasize a much closer connection to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek.

The process they used was unique:

In addition to three full time translators, the Bible Society used scholars in Greek and Hebrew, theology and professional authors and poets, who are specialists in the Norwegian languages. Their participation in the project from stage one, has been an exciting and important feature. In addition to give the translated Norwegian texts a very high linguistic quality, it gave the new Bible broad publicity. It has been remarkable to see how nationally famed authors and poets appear in media as Bible translators, strongly recommending the new translation and talking with enthusiasm about their own participation. Their participation has underlined the cultural importance of the Bible in modern society.

Once the translation was complete, marketers packaged the translation in a variety of fresh and relevant ways.  For teenagers they came up with pink leather and denim covers.  For adults, they worked toward a more sophisticated look and feel.

Norway Bible launchNorway’s heritage is Lutheran.  Until last year Lutheranism was the official state religion, but an act of Parliament changed all that.  Government leaders made “official” what everyone already knew; Norwegians have little time and interest in church.  Everyone thought that they would little interest in the Bible too.  But the new Norwegian translation has certainly challenged that.

Why the change?  Some people are speculating that now people are immigrating into Norway from Africa and the Middle East and bringing a variety of religions with them, people from Norway are taking a second look at their cultural heritage.  They are rediscovering some important things in the Bible, things they have decided not to forget.  As one writer who worked on the project said, “Thoughts and images from the Bible still have an impact on how we experience reality.”

What I find interesting is how similar the new Norwegian Bible translation sounds to “The Voice.”  There are significant differences in how the Norwegian Bible Society went about it, but the concept of inviting writers and poets to work alongside Greek and Hebrew scholars to create a  new translation is apparently an idea which dawned on them and Ecclesia Bible Society/Thomas Nelson at about the same time. Is it coincidence?  Perhaps.  But I’m betting on Providence.

Working through Philippians: Chapter 4

Here is my final installment on Philippians.  I started working through it a few weeks back and offering some interpretive suggestions.  If you want to go deeper take a look at one of the quality commentaries you can find on Philippians.Rediscovering Paul cover

Philippians ch. 4

Paul concluded the letter to the church at Philippi with a number of exhortations and a “thank you” for a financial gift.  Apparently, two prominent women, Euodia and Syntyche, had had a particularly nasty falling-out.  News of it traveled to Paul in prison.  He called upon them to lay aside their disagreements and to have the same mind (reiterating his earlier call in 2:2).  He asked the church to help them as well since it had a vested interest in their split.  Other exhortations include:

  • Stand firm in the Lord (4:1)
  • Rejoice in the Lord (4:4)
  • Become famous for your gentleness with each other (4:5)
  • Do not worry, instead pray and give thanks in everything (4:6-7)
  • Keep your mind on excellence, goodness and truth (4:8)
  • Do what you have seen and heard from me [Paul] (4:9)

Paul waited until the end of the letter to thank the Philippians for their recent gift.  It gave him an opportunity to write about the contentment he had learned through his many ups and downs.  In any and every situation, he wrote, he had learned to be content.  For one so used to hardship and prison contentment was an important virtue.  He knew that lack of contentment was the root of all sorts of evil.  Lack of contentment led to coveting, stealing, adultery, murder and a host of other personal and social failures.  Contentment, on the other hand, led to peace and joyful satisfaction.  We note two things he said about contentment.  First, Paul had to “learn” contentment in the rugged situations life.  As a learned skill it is not innate or natural.  We might even say that discontent is the normal condition of man.  Second, Paul found he could be content in any situation through the power of Christ.[1]  Clearly the secret of contentment was not in himself; it was in the Lord.

In his contentment Paul acknowledged the kindness of their gift without admitting his need.  In fact he turned the gift around to their credit.   The gift sent by Epaphroditus was “a sweet-smelling aroma, a welcome sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (4:18).  Because they have been willing to meet Paul’s needs, the apostle promised that “my God” would supply every need of theirs according to his own riches (4:19).  The letter ends as it began with a prayer-wish that the grace of the Lord Jesus would be with them.  For Paul grace is the beginning and end of the Christian walk.

[1] Unfortunately many translations miss the point in Phil 4:13.  Note particularly, the NASV: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  The context is contentment not “doing.”  The passage is better rendered: “I have strength to be content in every situation through the one who empowers me.”

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