A Word in Edgewise

Do We Need a New Lord’s Prayer?

Pope Francis is no stranger to controversy.  This week he suggested that Catholics need to re-translate part of the text of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, before you say, so what?, consider that Christians the world over pray the Lord’s prayer weekly in worship and some daily in their personal devotions. It is part of the spiritual heritage of the ages.

Now, I realize, I’m limited in this post to the English language and more Catholics around the world don’t speak English than do.  But still, it seems, from my limited knowledge of languages, that the idea the Pope is concerned about is reproduced in other western language versions of the Lord’s Prayer. Pope Francis

In particular, the line in question is the one which says “lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:6).  The phrase makes it seem, he says, as if God actively leads his people to be tempted to sin.  Instead, he says, we should translate the line “do not let us fall into sin.”

Now let’s see how three major English translations render that line.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . .  (King James Version)

And do not bring us to the time of trial
but rescue us from the evil one.  (New Revised Standard Version)

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (New International Version)

Four observations.  First, most western Christians have memorized the King James Version (KJV).  Second, the power of the KJV to shape modern translations should not be underestimated.  Even translations like THE VOICE use the same language.  Third, the NRSV comes closest to the Pope’s suggestion. Four, modern translations view the prayer as poetic and so render it in poetic verse.

The challenge of translation from one language to the next is a significant one.  I’ve written about this problem on this site. But with the NT it is even more challenging because we are even further removed from the original source than we might imagine.  Jesus spoke Aramaic.  The Gospels are written in Greek.  And most of us rely heavily on English translations.

Now, I think the Pope is onto something to which Christians—Protestant, Catholics and Orthodox—need to pay attention.  God does not tempt people to sin. They are tempted by their own desires, or so says James (1:13-15).

The crux of the matter is the meaning of the word peirasmos. It is a word that does not occur outside the New Testament, so we can’t appeal to other Greek texts from the period—what scholars call comparative philology.  Based on the NT itself, it seems the semantic field or range of meanings of this Greek word includes temptation (to sin) and trial or testing (of faith).  If we take the rest of the NT seriously, as it seems the translators of the NRSV, it is best to take this as something like “(to God) do not bring us to a time of testing.”  The opposite is this: “(God) rescue us from the evil one.”

It seems to me that the prayer of Jesus is similar to Jewish prayers from the same period.  They ask roughly the same thing.  “God, do not hand your people over to trials and tests, instead rescue them from evil.”  In the arc of the Scriptural story think of someone like Job, Abraham (and his near sacrifice of Isaac), and the people of Israel in exile.

Whether Pope Francis’ teaching on this makes it down to your average congregation, we will see. If I were a “bettin’ man,” I’d say it will.  In the end, no we don’t need a new Lord’s prayer, what we do need is good translations of the one we have.

 

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Xmas: Is It Taking Christ out of Christmas?

I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Potts, opening a vein when anyone wrote “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.”  She felt there was a war on Christmas  and that people who abbreviated the name of the holiday were trying to take Christ out of Christmas.  I suppose that is true for some people, but when you look into the real story of “Xmas” you realize that something else is at work.

The story begins with the Ten Commandments.  One of those commandments says, “Do not take the name of the LORD in vain.”  The name by the way is not “LORD,” that was a respectful translation or substitute for the name.  In Hebrew THE NAME is four letters, yodh-he-vav-he. The technical term for the name is the tetragrammaton (literally, “the four letters”).  Scholars today think the name may have been pronounced—when it was pronounced—Yahweh or Yahveh.  But we aren’t sure.  This was the covenant name of God, the name revealed to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. nomina_sacra

Under the influence of the commandment about the misuse of God’s name, the faithful spoke it less and less.  By the time of Jesus speaking the name was considered blasphemous in almost every circumstance. The rabbis made their mark by building a hedge about the law. If you never spoke God’s name, you could never be guilty of taking the name in vain. It was a way of safeguarding the name.  Even when reading Scripture in the synagogue, a substitute word was used.  In Aramaic-speaking synagogues the readers said “Adonai.”  In Greek-speaking synagogues they said “kyrios.”  Both mean something like “Lord” or “Master.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide good evidence for how the name of God was written in the centuries and decades leading up to the New Testament era.  In many of the biblical scrolls the name of God is written in paleo-Hebrew script.  That would be like shifting to a Gothic font when writing the name of God.  In other scrolls the name is not written at all; it is represented by four, thick dots written in the center of the line. In yet other scrolls where the name of God should be there is a blank in the line just large enough for the tetragrammaton.  Scholars theorize that the blank was left by a junior scribe and would have been filled in later by a senior scribe who had permission to write the name. Where there is a blank in the line, we think the senior scholar never got around to writing the divine name in the blank. These were some of the ways the faithful showed respect for the name of God.

Early Christians developed their own way of signaling respect for the names and titles associated with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Copying the New Testament books in Greek, they abbreviated the names (usually first letter and last letter) and placed a line above those letters. You can see this in the picture.  Scholars refer to these as nomina sacra (Latin for “sacred names”).  Copyists continued to write sacred names this way for centuries.  It remains a common practice still among artists who create the icons used in the eastern churches.  Many names and titles were written this way including “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “Holy Spirit.” For our purposes note the nomen sacrum for “Christ;” it was written XC. Now remember these are letters from the Greek alphabet not our Latinized version. It is not “X” (eks) the 24th letter of our English alphabet but the Greek letter “Chi,” the first letter of the title “Christ.”

Earliest versions of writing Christmas as “Xmas” in English go back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (about 1100).  This predates the rise of secularism by over 600 years.  The Oxford English Dictionary cites the use of “X-“ for “Christ” as early as 1485.  In one manuscript (1551) Christmas is written as “X’temmas.”  English writers from Lord Byron (1811) to Samuel Coleridge (1801) to Lewis Carroll (1864) used the spelling we are familiar with today, “Xmas.”

The origin of “Xmas” does not lie in secularists who are trying to take Christ out of Christmas, but in ancient scribal practices adopted to safeguard the divine name and signal respect for it.  The “X” in “Xmas” is not the English letter (eks) as in “X marks the spot,” but it is the initial Greek letter “Chi” (X), the first letter of the title “Christ.”  No doubt some people today use the abbreviated form to disregard the Christian focus of the holy-day, but the background tells a different story, a story of faithful men and women showing the deep respect they have for Jesus at this time of year.

Merry Christmas or should I say “Merry Xmas”!

Is It Possible to be a Christian and a Scholar?

Recently my friend and colleague, Larry Hurtado (Univ of Edinburgh), addressed the question whether it is possible to be a Christian and a scholar in a brief video sponsored by the University of Edinburgh.  It is only 3 minutes in length and worth watching.  Here is a link:

http://www.christianorigins.div.ed.ac.uk/2017/11/30/christian-scholars-and-academic-honesty/

No one comes to a discipline from no perspective at all.  Everyone, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, or “none” approaches a set of data or texts with assumptions which some scholars refer to as “pre-understanding.”  It is important to recognize what our pre-understandings are and to recognize when and how our pre-understandings enter into disciplines.  If they cause us to mis-read the texts or over-read the data, then we need to recognize or rethink those positions.

There are no points of neutrality.  Objectivity is a myth. Anyone who claims to be operating from some mythical, neutral spot or complete objectivity should not be taken more seriously than one who recognizes their biases.  You can clearly see my bias here.  A bias is not necessarily wrong.

 

Early Praise for THE DIVINE CHRIST

This week (Dec 2-7, 2017) I’m working through the page proofs for my new book The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel (Baker Academic, March 2018).  Not long ago I received word of the cover art for the book which I present here for the first time.The Divine Christ

Recently I have received endorsements from a number of scholars whom I deeply respect.  Here are few of those:

“What is the most amazing thing the New Testament writers do to exalt Jesus of Nazareth? Is it reporting all his ‘I am’ sayings in the Gospel of John or calling him ‘the Messiah, God blessed over all’ in Romans 9:5? Maybe it’s all the ways he is worshiped, starting during his life but especially after his death and resurrection? Perhaps, but when do we consider all the New Testament texts that quote the Old Testament and apply to Jesus what is said about Yahweh, the one and only God of creation? English readers don’t usually think of these passages because we just see the word ‘Lord’ and move on. David Capes leads us on a sleuthing exercise to discover and understand the significance of these passages. Readers will be astounded at how many there are and will be greatly encouraged by what their meanings add up to.”—Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

“What does it mean when Paul says ‘Jesus is Lord’? In a clear and engaging style, David Capes takes us to the heart of Paul’s theology, revealing the depth and nuance of this seemingly simple claim by showing how it is shaped by Paul’s Old Testament citations and allusions. Capes extends the conclusions of his seminal work on Paul’s early high Christology and makes the best of contemporary scholarship accessible without getting lost in the weeds. Both beginning students and seasoned scholars will benefit from this valuable work.”—Ben C. Blackwell, assistant professor of Christianity, Houston Baptist University

“In this volume Capes extends the argument he first presented in his important book Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology and responds to some recent developments in scholarly discussion. By pressing home useful distinctions and carefully attending to textual and contextual features, Capes elucidates crucial aspects of the earliest and fully divine Christology. This volume sparkles with common sense and judicious judgment, shedding light on a perennially contentious issue. These debates concern matters of great significance, and I am grateful that Capes has once again contributed to these discussions.”—Chris Tilling, senior lecturer in New Testament Studies, St. Mellitus College

“Every generation of students has to struggle anew with complex questions regarding the status and nature of Christ in the New Testament and early Christian thought. Capes proves himself an expert guide through Paul’s Letters, especially Paul’s use of Old Testament texts that apply the divine title ‘Lord’ to Jesus. When Christians called Jesus ‘Lord,’ what did this mean? Did the first Christians consider Jesus divine? How did they conceive of the unique lordship of Jesus in relation to the one God? To this weighty subject Capes brings proven expertise, crystal clarity of expression, and penetrating analysis of interpretations past and present.”—Nijay K. Gupta, associate professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary

“Capes offers a brilliant examination of the meaning of ‘Lord’ in ancient Judaism, in modern scholarship, and in the Pauline Letters. What Capes demonstrates, with acumen and insight, is that Paul was among those who considered Jesus as Lord in the strongest possible sense, and the highest Christology we can imagine was indeed among the earliest. This erudite and learned volume is for anyone interested in the Christology of the early church.”—Michael F. Bird, lecturer in theology, Ridley College, Melbourne, AustraliaN

Thanks to all these scholars who took time to read the book and take it seriously.

Now . . . back to work . . .

Biblical Wisdom: Ancient and Relevant

Not long ago I was invited to moderate a panel discussion at the Lanier Theological Library featuring three top Hebrew Bible specialists: Dr. Tremper Longman (Westmont College), Dr. Lawson Younger (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Dr. James Hoffmeier (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School).  The topic of the symposium was Biblical Wisdom, inspired by Tremper Longman’s new book (The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom, [Baker Academic]).

Mark Lanier, who normally moderates these panel discussions, was out of town and not able to join us.  So I was grateful for the opportunity to work with the panel of experts that day.

Here is a link to the conversation. It was a good introduction to the wisdom tradition in the Old and New Testaments.  Few traditions bring together both Old and New Testaments in a more elegant and personal way.

Christian Women

My friend, colleague, and collaborator in all things good at Wheaton College, Dr. Lynn Cohick, and her former student Amy Hughes have written an important and timely book on the role of many key women in church history in the second to fifth centuries (Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2017]).  It has just been published and I’ve had a chance to read through much of it in digital form.  I’m looking forward to getting my SIGNED copy when I return to Chicago in a couple of weeks. Christian Women book by Cohick and Hughes

When most of us took church history, we were introduced to dozens of men who defended the nascent community and/or led it during tumultuous times.  Names like Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Justin Martryr, Athanasius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine were just a few of the men we studied.  But fortunately the record of many women who defended and led the church still exists, and there are scholars eager to tell their stories.

In their own words this “book will educate readers who are exploring the patristic period about the lives of the most important women from this period, so that their influence can be better integrated into the history of the church.”  And that is the story they tell, a story of integration. They do not silence the men who contributed to the growth and development of the church, but they do correct them in gracious tones. I would characterize their approach to the evidence available as a “charitable feminism,” an advocacy for the role of women in church history as leaders, martyrs, examples in their own right, understood against a culture that in ways were hostile to women who dared to speak outside the private, domestic fear (though the male-public, female-private distinction is often overblown).  Both Cohick and Hughes clearly appreciate the cultural limits placed people living in 1500-1800 years ago.  Few of us have eyes to see beyond our own cultural limits.

If you are interested in church history—particularly the formative centuries that brought Christianity from its status as a persecuted sect to one of the most influential forces in the west—you will want to get and read this book. Don’t think you can claim any expertise in the history of Christianity, if you don’t take into account the contributions of Macrina, Felicitas, Thecla, Perpetua, Egeria, Helena and many others.

If you’d like to pick up your own copy, click here.

Paul: Surprises along the Way

A few weeks ago Mark Lanier invited me to speak to his Sunday School class at Champions Forest Baptist Church.  Mark teaches a class weekly of about 700 people, and I have been privileged to speak there are few times.

On this occasion Mark was doing a series on the apostle Paul, and he asked me to contribute a talk on “Paul: Surprises Along the Way.”  Essentially, Mark asked me to talk about the kinds of things I’ve learned about Paul that I would have never expected.  I have written a couple of books on Paul and it was a delight to spend some time thinking through a few of the surprises.  Each of Mark’s Sunday School classes are recorded and made available on YouTube.  I’ve included a link here, in case you are interested.  The talk is about 45 minutes.