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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 There a Better Word than “Lord”?

 

Recently, I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.”  Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations.  Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ.  On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, a king, a master of slave, for example. logo_kyrios

One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios.  The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience.  We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.”  We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?

The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status.  Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word.  Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States.  They have lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit.  For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God.

Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it.  I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it.  I’d be interested in your thoughts.  Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power.   Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something.  Then again, maybe not?!

One God, One Lord

In a few weeks I’ll fly to Nova Scotia to give a series of lectures at Acadia Divinity School.  The lecture series is known as the Hayward Lectures.  Some of the best scholars in the world have been invited to give the Hayward Lectures.  I’m not sure why they invited me.  I’m not being modest.  I’m being truthful.  The list of past lecturers is a veritable “Who’s Who” in biblical studies: N. T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, John Stackhouse, John J. Collins, Edith Humphreys, Emmanuel Tov, James Charlesworth,  just to name a few.  So I’m honored to be part of this series. Acadia Divinity College

My topic is academic but it has to do with what it meant for early Christians to call Jesus “Lord.”  Where did the title come from?  What did they mean by it?  One of the passages I’m considering in the lectures is 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 (from The Voice):

And even if the majority believes there are many so-called gods in heaven and on earth (certainly many worship such “gods” and “lords”), this is not our view. For us, there is one God, the Father who is the ultimate source of all things and the goal of our lives. And there is one Lord—Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King; through Him all things were created, and by Him we are redeemed.

The passage is Paul’s unique modification of a Jewish prayer and confession known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4).

Paul’s expanded-Shema acknowledges the unfortunate reality of idolatry in the world and then trumps the claim that the world is populated with many so-called gods and lords.  They may be called “gods,” but “gods” they ain’t (if I can borrow a southern expression).  They may be called “lords,” but “lords” they ain’t.  For us (Christ-believers) there is One God, the Father, the source and goal of all reality, and One Lord, Jesus Christ, the agent of creation and redemption.

The confession Paul makes is properly-speaking binitarian.  It sees the two—God, the Father, and Lord, Jesus Christ—in unity.  The two are one.  We are not dealing with any sort of primitive ditheism, that is, two separate and distinct gods.  As a Jew Paul was an exclusive monotheist but now—given all that the God of Abraham has been up to—he understood that Jesus somehow must be reckoned within God’s unique covenant identity.

We should not fail to notice that the title “Lord” here, associated as it is with Jesus, has its roots in the Shema.  Spoken versions of the prayer substituted Adonay (Lord) for the divine name out of reverence for the name, but it is clear the original contains the covenant name of God: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD (YHWH) is our God, the LORD (YHWH) is One” (Deut 6:4, my translation). In The Voice we translated  every occurrence of the divine name as “The Eternal One” or “Eternal One.”  You can read about that in earlier posts.

AcadiaDivinityThe link between YHWH and Jesus in Paul’s version is unmistakable and remarkable.  What makes it all the more remarkable is that Jesus is not a figure of the ancient past whose legend and stature build over the centuries, but a man who recently walked the earth with people Paul himself had met and knew (Galatians 1).  The claim is audacious.  The link—if it were a fiction—would be scandalous.