A Q Footnote (Trash-Talkin’ Elaine Pagels)

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          I wrote the post about A New Paradigm for Understanding Q in response to a comment made by Elaine Pagels in the PBS documentary From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Pagels makes a comment, something to the effect that the author of Q wasn’t interested in the narrative details of Jesus’ life. My first thought was that that cannot be established with any kind of certainty, and is in fact speculation. I figured I could propose a couple of alternative understandings of Q that may be more plausible than Pagel’s concept of Q. To be completely fair, documentaries often pull quotes from longer conversations. This removes the quotes from the speaker’s conversational context and places them within a new context constructed by the filmmaker. Would Elaine Pagels be comfortable with how that line was used? Only she knows for sure.

That said, her quote does seem to typify much of the popular understanding of Q. It also annoys me greatly. Some scholars seem to have an axe to grind with the Christian faith, while others maintain a certain professional detachment that neither endorses nor repudiates faith. There is also a common problem with new discoveries. They tempt people to overestimate the significance of a given discovery. The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas among the Nag Hammadi Library has certainly been significant, and yet its dating to the second century of the Common Era can hardly be ignored when using it to discuss the varieties of early Christianity. It is the culmination of traditions within certain early Christian communities that developed into a written form much later than the Biblical or proto-orthodox traditions. If you want to have a good understanding of the most primitive forms of Christianity, and track its development, you are still better off looking at the Biblical materials, and prioritizing them before you come to later works like the Gospel of Thomas.

Being a fan of professional wrestling and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche has give me an appreciation for the art of “trash talking” (the poignant use of ad hominems). Analogies are fun to work with, and it is good to keep in mind their limitations. Nevertheless, here is my stab at trash-talking Elaine Pagels…

When it comes to Q, has Elaine Pagels ground up a copy of the Gospel of Thomas, then snorted it—getting high on its Gnostic aroma? Does she then look at all else from out of a Gnostic haze. Coming across the imagined Q source that no one has ever seen, can she think clearly enough to question how similar the religious values of the authors of the respective documents could have been? I think not.

I got to meet Chris Jericho at a book signing (November 2007) for his first autobiographical work. I also got my WrestleMania XIX ticket signed by Chris.

I got to meet professional wrestler Chris Jericho at a book signing (November 2007) for his first autobiographical work. He also signed my WrestleMania XIX ticket. Chris Jericho is a very gifted trash-talker on TV, but is very polite when you meet him.

After writing that it feels like time to go watch the WWE Network (you too can subscribe for only $9.99). There is an episode of the series “WWE Countdown” on the top 10 trash talkers of all-time.

[Trash-talking shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I really don’t bear Elaine Pagels any ill will, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ever voice my disagreements with her.]


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


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A New Paradigm for Understanding Q

Q Cover

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          What is “Q,” you may ask? Well, being the geek that I am, the first thing that comes to my mind is the character in Star Trek: The Next Generation portrayed by John de Lancie (especially as I saw him at a Star Trek convention in Boise, Idaho on June 2, 1996, and got his autograph on a game card).


In this case however, it refers to a concept in Biblical studies. In brief, it is thought that the respective authors of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a framework for writing their own gospels as well as material from a couple of other sources, one of which we call “Q” (short for the German word Quelle, that means “source”). There is some material in Matthew and Luke, not found in Mark, that is very similar, and some material that is unique to their respective gospels. “Q” represents material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. Among other things, the Lord’s Prayer is one such example of material that is in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. Given the high degree of similar wording between the common material, it is conjectured that Q was a written source (in Greek).

The Q hypothesis supposes that this early written source originally just contained sayings of Jesus with perhaps an expanded temptation narrative from what is found in Mark. What has colored many interpretations and understandings of Q has been the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas among the Nag Hammadi library. The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative, and is just a collection of sayings of Jesus, some in the context of conversations with others, typically the Disciples. There are a number of similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Gospels (including John). For a variety of reasons the majority of scholars would not assume that the Gospel of Thomas was written prior to the Gospels we have in the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas and other works found among the Nag Hammadi library have helped to provide a much broader perspective on the diversity of early Christianity (which might better be called “Christianities” in the plural). Clearly there were early forms of Christianity that had little value for narrative details about Jesus’ life, instead prioritizing Jesus’ teaching. Was Q the product of an early Christian community that valued Jesus’ teachings over the narrative details of his life?

Ludwig Feuerbach’s insight that we make God in our own image holds true for a variety of religious and scholarly phenomena. It isn’t merely our concept of God that we craft in ways we find personally comfortable or appealing. At times this holds true for sacred texts as well. Thomas Jefferson rewrote the gospels in order to leave out the parts he didn’t like, and emphasize the teachings of Jesus that he admired. That is hardly the act of a proto-evangelical Christian conservative, despite what David Barton might want you to believe. This Jeffersonian type of tradition where people craft portraits of Jesus into what is more comfortable to them has been around for a long time, and is still very much alive today.

Due to the standard methods of historical inquiry, subjects like miraculous deeds fall outside the scope of the discipline. As a consequence, historians can’t talk about whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead or whether Jesus himself rose from the dead in bodily form. This isn’t some insidious conspiracy to marginalize the beliefs of devout Christians, but an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the discipline. The difference shows up in cases like, for example, someone who has a religious experience and talks about it as “God touched my soul.” Such a statement cannot be verified. It would be easier just to say that the person understood herself to have had a religious experience, but that whether or not it had divine involvement is a subject for theologians, not historians. Thus historians are comfortable saying that the majority of the early Christians believed that God raised Jesus from the dead. What that looked like, and how the early Christians came to attribute Jesus’ resurrection to divine intervention, is beyond the scope of historical inquiry. How could you design an objective experiment to detect divine causation?

There are some historians who may be uncomfortable with religious experience in any case, and perhaps not only find the ethical content of Jesus’ message easier to deal with, but also ascribe to it paramount importance. There are criteria that scholars of history use by which sayings attributed to a historical figure can be said to have varying degrees of probability to have come from that historical figure. All this is to say that a theory of Q which holds that the author’s only interest is in the sayings of Jesus may reflect the scholar’s own level of comfort, and, or preference with regard to various aspects of religious materials. The bare-bones of the theory of Q is just that it was a document that contained material common to Matthew and Luke, but not also in Mark. That this material is predominantly sayings of Jesus is merely a fact. Surely the claim that those who produced the Q document had no interest in details about Jesus’ life, including his birth, death, and resurrection, is overstating the matter. What can reasonably be said is that Q likely did not contain very much, if any, narrative details, but that the motives for the lack of inclusion for such details remain a mystery. It would be an argument from silence that makes the leap to impute a motive behind an omission (talking about this particular logical fallacy sounds funny since Q itself is a hypothesis—we don’t have a single written copy of it). Is it plausible that one explanation for the absence of narrative material in Q represents a lack of interest in such materials by the author? Yes, of course, but there is no way to prove this.

Other Possible Interpretations of Q

          Leaving behind the theory, based on an argument from silence, that the author of Q had little to no interest in narrative materials to explain the absence of such materials, we can now look at other possibilities. First of all, it is important to note that Q was employed by the proto-orthodox writers of the New Testament Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Clearly the Q source was in wide enough circulation among proto-orthodox Christian communities that both Matthew and Luke were able to use it in the construction of their respective gospels. It may be likely that Q was also produced by a proto-orthodox author. Why would they use it if it was known to have been produced by a community with questionable beliefs? Debates about correct belief were already raging in some of our earliest New Testament writings (in Paul’s letters), so the authors of Matthew and Luke may have been understandably reluctant to employ a source known to have come from outside the emerging proto-orthodoxy. The logical alternative to this would be that the authors of Matthew and Luke may not have known who or what community produced Q, but that Q was not seen to have any questionable theological content, nor have ties to deviant groups (deviant from a proto-orthodox perspective). For two independent Gospel authors to both come to the same conclusion that Q fit within their respective proto-orthodox worldviews is strong evidence that Q was not perceived to be problematic to their theology.

Given the prominent place the proto-orthodox placed on certain narrative details of Jesus life, particularly his crucifixion, it would be reasonable to assume that the author of Q (assuming the author of Q to be proto-orthodox) also had an interest in such materials. We can look to Paul’s early summation of the Christian message for evidence of the importance of certain narrative details of Jesus’ life. One memorable way Paul puts it is, “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul here makes no claim that this basic message originated with him, quite the contrary, he asserts that others passed it on to him, and that this is the widespread understanding. How then can the lack of certain narrative details in Q be explained?

It may be helpful to consider the nature of writing in antiquity. In the post-literate society of today, most everyone can read, and it is hard for people to function in society if they cannot. In the first century, literacy was not common. Evangelism was not done by passing out tracts. People heard the Christian message, they didn’t read it. The spoken word was the primary means of communication in early Christianity. The written word had other functions, like letter writing. Even there it was presumed in many cases, like most of the letters of Paul, that the letter would be read aloud to the community to which it was addressed. It was not passed around for everyone to read for themselves.

Q may not have had to contain any kind of crucifixion narrative because this was already the basic Christian message that everyone knew. Consider that by the time Q would have likely been composed, there would have been a large percentage of Gentile Christians for whom access to Aramaic oral traditions of the sayings of Jesus may not have been accessible. As time went on, those who were companions of Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, died themselves. The function of Q, it seems to me, is that it preserved in written form the sayings of Jesus that did not get the same high degree of oral circulation that some variation on the crucifixion and resurrection “creed” did. It may be that the Q document was for the purpose of educating new converts (particularly Greek-speaking Gentiles), and so would not need to rehash a basic, oft-repeated, liturgical message like, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It is plausible that Q was produced by proto-orthodox Christians who had a great deal of value for the narrative details of Jesus’ life, like his crucifixion and resurrection, but that the function of Q was to address other needs not being met by the predominant oral traditions of the proto-orthodox. Paul, being our earliest Biblical author, is rather blunt in describing the universality of the basic Christian message amongst the various early Christian missionaries, “So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11). There may simply have been more need for a written compilation of Jesus’ teachings earlier than a written compilation of narratives about Jesus.

A Narrative Q?

          There is another possibility that Q did in fact contain narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection, albeit greatly abbreviated. This could explain the divergences in Matthew and Luke where each of them have greatly expanded narratives from what is found in Mark. It will be recalled that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark was deemed by many later scribes to be unsatisfactory, thus longer endings of Mark were added later. If Q had some narrative details about Jesus, beyond the temptation narratives, it is likely they were not very substantive. If they were, we would have expected to see more agreement between Matthew and Luke as regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, for example. It is interesting to note that both Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ virgin birth as well as Jesus having been born in Bethlehem. Could Q have had a simple statement affirming both of those points without providing the sort of details later Christians desired? Perhaps something like “Jesus was born of the virgin, according to the scriptures, in the town of Bethlehem, according to the scriptures.” A statement like that would put it more in line with the character of the basic gospel message already cited above (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). We know of apocryphal Infancy Gospels that were written to expand on what little details Matthew and Luke provide us. Perhaps Q had a bare-bones literate preservation of the earliest oral proclamations about Jesus’ birth. This stoked a desire for more details that evolved into Matthew and Luke’s respective infancy narratives, and much later culminated in the production of Infancy Gospels.

If the expanded temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke came from Q, then it would seem a little odd not to have also had some sort of narrative about the immediately preceding stories of Jesus’ baptism and the ministry of John the Baptist. Again, one can speculate that a possible baptism narrative in Q may have been deemed by the authors of Matthew and Luke to be inadequate when compared to Mark. It may also be that Q had some brief information about John the Baptist’s message (see for example: Luke 3:7; Matthew 3:7). Perhaps there was also something of an abbreviated crucifixion and resurrection narrative in Q. Both Matthew and Luke mention some disciples having doubt about Jesus’ resurrection despite Jesus appearing to them (Matthew leaves this doubt unresolved, whereas Luke takes great pains to resolve the doubt). Once again, it may be that Q simply did not have much of a satisfactory post-Easter narrative, which prompted the authors of Matthew and Luke to rectify that.

In any case it is likely that if Q contained any narrative details about Jesus, they were for the most part not terribly substantive (the obvious exception being the temptation narrative). Thus it would still seem appropriate to assert that the teachings of Jesus were the primary focus of Q, even if there were some narratives about Jesus.


          What is it that I have endeavored to do with this article? It is not my intention to prove that these ways of looking at Q are certain. Q itself is still just a hypothesis. Rather, I hope that by providing alternative ways of looking at Q, this can undermine any kind of easy certainty for the notion that the author of Q only valued the sayings of Jesus. It may be that the function of Q, operating in proto-orthodox communities that were saturated with the basic gospel message, filled a need for deepening the communities’ understanding of Jesus’ own teachings. Alternatively, it is also plausible that there may have been more biographical material in Q that, over time, was found to be unsatisfactory. Could Q have represented an expansion of the gospel message from good news about Jesus to include messages by Jesus himself?

What then can be said? For reasons unknown, Q likely did not contain much, if any, narrative details of Jesus life. Any assertion that the author of Q had no interest in such details is unwarranted. It is possible that the author of Q didn’t value narrative details, but it is far from certain, as I hope to have demonstrated here. The reverse may actually be more likely. Such statements asserting that the author of Q did not value the narrative details of Jesus life are overreaching what little evidence we have for the existence of Q. They further strike me as an example of creating a theory of Q that fits better what some scholars are more comfortable with—creating a gospel that better reflects the biases of scholars who are uncomfortable with miracle stories. I myself am a self-avowed, practicing, United Methodist. I don’t have a problem with the Christ of faith, even as I endeavor to understand Jesus better through the methods of literary and historical-critical inquiry. If Q existed as a written source for both Matthew and Luke, it makes the most sense that it wasn’t copied for ever if, after the composition of the four canonical gospels, there just wasn’t any substantive unique material left in Q. I think it best to see Q as a type of proto-orthodox stepping stone toward the evolution of the canonical Gospels, and not as representing any kind of alternative early Christianity that was devoid of focus on beliefs like Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


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Jesus Talkin' - Titles

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          What if genuinely pious folks use language about God and the Bible in ways other than what we theologians think they do? Surveys ask people, “do you believe the Bible is to be taken literally?” Very often the answer is “yes.” But what is the alternative? To say “no” would seem to be disrespectful to the high value we place on scripture. What if instead the question was “do you think the Bible should be taken seriously?” To go even further, why not ask which descriptor better fits: “literally” or “seriously?” For that matter, how often do you hear people say things like “I literally [fill-in-the-blank],” when you know the word “literally” is used metaphorically?

In church we sing songs that typically assign the best and highest adjectives to God. “Our God is an AWESOME God, He reigns from…” Would this not train people to use words like “omnipotent,” “unchanging,” “inerrant,” etc? It is not as if there isn’t precedent for using language that way. The Roman Emperors used some pretty lofty titles for themselves that were then used by Christians to describe Jesus in conscious opposition to Roman Imperialism.

As someone with formal education in theology, I know a ton of problems caused by corollaries of omnipotence as related to the subject of theodicy. Thus I understandably shy away from its use. Sometimes this annoys people I know who are not theologians.

Sure Biblical inerrancy, in the minds of those untrained in Biblical exegesis, can often lead to the tacit assumption that one’s own interpretations are inerrant. That God is said to be unchanging often ignores the reality that our understanding of God has changed a lot over time. I don’t think about God the way I did as a child anymore. I suspect many others would share that experience of having grown in our understanding of who God is. Thus “unchanging” seems more like a nice thing to say about God than a reflection of our lived experience. I do recognize that it is often legitimately used to emphasize God’s consistent love and faithfulness for us.

What if people use language about God as an outgrowth of their worship, rather than as the result of serious theological ruminations? Would most people even have a frame of reference to use the word “omnipotence” in line with John Calvin’s thought? If what people practice on a weekly basis is using grandiose words of praise directed toward God, should it be any surprise that they are reluctant to embrace any talk about God that isn’t correspondingly grandiose?

Church services, with so much praise of God, and celebration of the miracles in the Bible, is it any wonder that some people have a hard time avoiding language that may be problematic in some circumstances? How often do you hear about people praying for something other than healing for those who are sick or injured? A line I often use when talking about the subject of prayer is that “if human beings are mortal, and all you ever pray for is healing, then sooner or later it isn’t going to work.”

Should we then avoid language that may be something of an exaggeration in our worship services? I’m not sure that would be appropriate, but evaluating the theology contained in the songs we sing is a good idea for many reasons. There is a time for praise, there is a time for lament, and there is a time for careful theological discussion. It may be wise to consider the context in which people use language about God. The same words may mean different things in different contexts and to different people.

If all of this is true, how can it influence the way we talk about God with others?


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


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God is Transgender (Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations)

Jesus Talkin' - Transgender Jesus

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

If Genesis 1:27 has both men and women being created in the image of God, does that not mean that both genders are present in God?

The wisdom of God, personified as the feminine Sophia, was the mechanism through which God created, and is later identified as the “Word of God” in John’s Gospel. Is it not valid to say that when the Wisdom/Word of God became flesh, that God is thus to be considered transgender?


Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations are meant to provoke thought. They are not necessarily meant to convey the author’s actual opinion, and may be hypothetical in nature. The style is inspired by a certain oft-misunderstood European philosopher of the late 19th Century (he would have preferred to be called a European philosopher rather than a German philosopher) – “Dionysus.”


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


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Scratch Paper Creation

Scratch paper Creation

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

Is it six 24 hour days that God created the Heavens and the Earth?

One of the problems I see, looking at debates about how to understand Genesis, is that the creation texts are constantly held up against science. Conservative and fundamentalist interpreters often defend the Genesis 1 creation account as an accurate scientific description of how God created the universe, while liberal, progressive, and moderate interpreters tend to use science to demonstrate how Genesis 1 is not scientific. Given that I am writing a book about Genesis 1-11, this just doesn’t make sense to me.

Until the Cokesbury Christian Bookstores were closed in 2013, I was the manager of the Seattle store, and every now and then someone would engage me in a discussion of some religious topic. One day there was a fundamentalist who came in to the store and talked with me, insisting that Genesis 1 must be seen as scientifically true. I am neither a fundamentalist, nor would many people consider me conservative. Now being a bookstore manager means it is not my place to engage in debate with customers.

In this case I drew a quick diagram on a piece of scratch paper (similar to the one below). The first column had days 1, 2, and 3. The second column had days 4, 5, and 6. I drew arrows going from the first three days to the second three days.

Six Days of Creation Scratch Paper

I mentioned to the customer that the spaces created in the first three days are filled in the second three days. Day 1 is light/dark and day/night, while Day 4 is the sun, moon, and stars to fill the day/night. Day 2 has the sea and sky, while Day 5 has fish and birds to fill the sea and sky. …and the same is true for Day 3’s relationship to Day 6. The sixth day has animals and human beings filling the space created on the third day (the land and the plants).

I didn’t say anything else, but the customer asked if he could keep the diagram (which I let him do). What I wanted to ask him was, “how does that pattern look anything like a scientific account?” Does it not look much more like poetry, albeit one with theological content?

Fundamentalists expect to have science used against them (see Ken Ham). Rather, use the literary quality of the text itself to show how the text is meant to be understood. Thus my method (in contrast to the typical “liberal” method of using science against “fundamentalist” interpretation) is to reveal the literary conventions of the text, and in so doing, undermine fundamentalist interpretation.

You may ask, “What does Lee think about whether Genesis 1 intends six 24 hour days?” The short answer is “Yes, the text really does intend people to understand creation in terms of six days.”


Framing creation in terms of a week drives home the centrality of Sabbath observance (read Exodus 20:11). The week of creation is to be understood as an allegory for how the Sabbath is integral to the rhythms of time at creation and in the present. Listening to people talk about how a thousand years is as a day to God is just nonsense in this context. It is a clever way of taking the story of Genesis 1 literally, while not taking the days literally. …and it completely misses the theological point of the importance of the Sabbath, which is the purpose for using days in the first place.


 © 2014 Lee Karl Palo


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Sermon – The Bible is Cool!

My Bible

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

     Having a seminary level education and many years’ experience working at a Christian bookstore, I consider myself something of a Bible-geek. Thus I often get asked questions about the Bible. Many times this is as simple as what Bible translation I would recommend and why. Other times I am asked much more in-depth questions about the meaning of specific parts of the Bible. So when I was given this opportunity to preach again, I thought I might use it to talk about the Bible. So I will be discussing a variety of things about the Bible, including different translations, how translations are made, some peculiar and interesting facts about the Bible, and I will make some recommendations.

New Year’s Resolution

     At the end of the year it is time for many of us who choose a new year’s resolution to do so. For 2014 I made the decision not to post anything about politics on my Facebook page. That worked out reasonably well, and I think I will continue the habit into 2015 as well. I don’t intend to be as strict about it though. What I would like to do for next year is to read through the entire Bible. Since it is not a short book, there are many different plans for reading through the Bible in a year. Some suggest reading through from Genesis to Revelation. This can get a little trying when you have to wade through some of what most people would consider some pretty boring material like the first eight chapters of 1 Chronicles. I prefer a plan that has both Old and New Testament passages, which can make for a much more interesting daily reading schedule.

Why Read the Bible?

     2 Timothy 3:16-17 famously reads, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” People often talk about the inspiration of the scriptures, but what does that mean? The 2 Timothy passage tells us that scripture is inspired, but not what exactly that inspiration is. There are various ways people define inspiration. The word itself means “breathed into.” It is common to talk about the Bible as if its inspiration was only relevant to when the books of the Bible were written. This is a mistake. I believe it is important to emphasize that no matter what translation of the Bible you read, God can inspire you through it. How it is that God inspired the Biblical authors is something of a mystery. The only way we have known of the inspiration of the Bible is by God speaking to us, the community of faith, through it. The answer to the question, “why read the Bible,” from the earliest of times has been that we can encounter God’s presence through the text of scripture.

The Word of God is…?

Another question that is good for us to ask: The Word of God is…?

Given this context of a sermon about the Bible, it is tempting to say that the Bible is the Word of God. It is true that we often talk about it that way, but it would be more accurate to phrase the question as, “who is the Word of God?” Most of you reading this would doubtless be familiar with John 1:1-18, which identifies Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. It is very important to remember that the Bible points us to Jesus as the “Word of God,” and not to itself.

So we know the Bible is a powerful book, but how much do we know about the Bible we have today?

The Formation of the Canon of Scripture

      The books that now comprise the Bible were written over a period of more than one thousand years, by many different people. Nearly all of the books were written for religious instruction, but were not considered scripture until much later. Even by Jesus’ day the only part of the Bible that everyone would have considered scripture was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament (also known as the Pentateuch). Generally speaking there were no councils convened for the purpose of determining what books would be considered scripture, despite what Dan Brown might lead you to think in his novel “The Da Vinci Code.” Basically Jews and Christians had a number of books that they considered to be useful for spiritual growth and religious education. Of those books, the list didn’t really get narrowed down until there was conflict over the use of certain books by other religious groups. Since Jesus was a Jew, it made sense for early Christians to accept many of the books that Jews were also using. This prompted those Jews who did not become Christians to look at just which books they should consider scripture besides the generally accepted books of the Torah. Thus the Old Testament as we know it was born.

The formation of the New Testament canon was a bit messier. Jesus’ words very quickly took on the authority of scripture. We know this from the way in which our earliest New Testament author, Paul, would reference Jesus’ teachings. However, it would be some time before those words were written down in the Gospels we today have in the Bible (which are the earliest gospels known). It may be that a book like Q was first compiled as a collection of Jesus teachings, and was later absorbed by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. You begin to see more effort on the part of Christian leaders to define which books they viewed as authoritative when heretics like Marcion began to edit Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke to suit his own theological views. Nevertheless it isn’t until the fourth century that you get a list, from Athanasius, of the books we now have in the New Testament, and only those books, as the authoritative Christian scriptures.

One thing that should be added is that for the Christians who would pass the faith down to us today, there were never hundreds or thousands of books for them to choose from to be in the New Testament. The books they used the most in their communities of faith are the ones we have in the New Testament. There were a few books that were being used by those communities that didn’t “make the cut,” but they were still seen to be valuable. Occasionally a book with questionable content would be used by some churches, but frequently such material would be quickly denounced as heretical by church leaders. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to read the final saying (114) in the Gospel of Thomas and wonder why it wasn’t accepted as scripture by the majority of Christians—it is pretty obvious.

The New Testament we have represents those books that were seen to have ties to Apostolic sources, and that the community of faith felt God’s continued inspiration from their use.

The Languages of the Bible

     The Bible was not originally written in English. It appears in English as the result of translating the original languages the books of the Bible were written in. The Old Testament was originally composed in Hebrew. The New Testament was composed in Greek. This is a bit of an oversimplification however. The authors of the New Testament themselves, when they quoted the Old Testament, were not themselves reading and translating the original Hebrew. By Jesus day the Old Testament had been translated into a popular Greek translation called the Septuagint. Jesus and his Disciples spoke Aramaic, so they may have heard Aramaic translations and interpretations of various books of the Old Testament called “Targumim.” At times when you read the Bible, you may notice that a New Testament quotation of the Old Testament isn’t always identical to the Old Testament passage being quoted. This is because the translator is working from the Greek New Testament with its quotations of the Greek Old Testament (as opposed to the Hebrew original). This is one complication related to the translation of the Bible into English, there are many other difficulties facing translators as well. Let’s look at a few of them.


     Language is not always used in a plain sense in English. I titled this sermon, “The Bible is Cool,” as a fun example of this issue. If someone was new to learning English, they might wonder what cold temperatures have to do with the Bible. There are examples of this in the Bible too. As we still use the word “cool” to refer to temperature from time to time, so it is with some words and phrases in the Bible. A few good examples of this are “sitting at the feet,” “knowing,” “gnashing teeth,” and “uncovering feet.” Some translators choose to ignore the literal word in favor of a more accurate word in its place. It is possible that translators could choose to find a different phrase that today works along the same lines as the Biblical phrase. Gnashing one’s teeth implies a great amount of anger, so you could substitute the phrase “pissed off.” However, that sounds a bit vulgar for translating the Bible, even if it is an accurate way to translate the phrase “gnashing teeth.”


     Other times translators do not want to translate the blunt meaning of the text because it is deemed inappropriate for public reading, etc. Did you know that there is profanity in the Bible? Look up Philippians 3:8. Whatever English translation you look at uses a phrase like sewage, sewer trash, rubbish. The original Greek of Paul’s letter is a lot stronger than this, and the most accurate translation would be a certain four-letter word that represents feces.

Titles and Slogans

     There are also phrases and titles that have more meaning than people living today would understand. Titles like “Son of God” and “Savior of the World” were not understood by most people living in the First Century CE to be about Jesus. In fact most of the people across the Roman Empire in Paul’s day would have heard those phrases used most often with reference to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Only people who identified as Christians would have thought those titles were properly addressed to Jesus. It would be like us today talking about Jesus as our “Commander-in-Chief,” “Leader of the Free World,” “President,” and so on. Another Bible passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:3, is where Paul quotes the common Roman Imperial slogan “There is peace and security.” This would be like quoting the phrase “The land of the free and the home of the brave” today. You can take it literally, but all of us would know that there is an undeniable reference to the United States there.

The Divine Name

     There are, at times, difficulties with Biblical names. The name of God, in particular, is a bit tricky. YHWH, the personal name of God, is revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:14-15), but the name of God was considered too special and holy to be pronounced aloud. As a solution, the word “LORD” in all capital letters was substituted for the divine name. So when you come across it when you read the Bible, it is always used in place of God’s personal name.

The Meaning of Names

     While there are quirks as to how God’s personal name appears in the Bible, that doesn’t address what the name itself means. There is a lot more to the meaning of the divine name than I have time for here. In brief, God’s name has a deliberate range of meaning. It can represent “I Am,” which is the most common way to refer to it, but it also means “I Will Be.”

Names have meaning, but translators don’t translate the meaning of proper names. When you read the name “Leah” in the Bible, you don’t think of “cow,” or “sheep” when you read the name “Rachel.” Nevertheless, the meaning of the names is played upon in the text of Genesis (the author of Genesis loved puns and wordplays). It was also common in the ancient world to incorporate the name of a God into personal names for people. The practice is referred to as theophory. Bible translators are in the practice of finding equivalent characters for personal names, what is more often called “transliteration.” In other words, translators ask which English letters are the closest to the letters of the original languages. Often this means there is some similarity to the pronunciation in English to the pronunciation of the original language. When you read the name “Jeremiah,” there isn’t anything that stands out as a part of the divine name, but when you pronounce the personal name for God, “Yahweh,” and the name “Jeremiah,” you can hear the “yah” sound at the end of Jeremiah (incidentally, Jeremiah means “God exalts”). The generic name for God, “El” is also commonly used in names, such as “Ezekiel” (and it is much easier to spot in English translation).

When you read names, even when you come across genealogies, there may be more to the text than you might think.

Literary Devices

     People in the ancient world did not have many of the conventions of writing that we do today. Punctuation and paragraph divisions are more recent advancements in writing. Writing was also more of a way to preserve the spoken word, than it was an end in itself. Most of the people in the ancient world could not read or write. Thus a book’s use would be primarily in its being read aloud to an audience. In many cases the books we have are merely the written preservation of what was first composed orally. Since people were concerned with memory then as now, there were memory aids incorporated into the composition of many works. One such literary device that facilitated memory is called chiasmus. This is where you have a series of parallels that are inverted. Sometimes this can be as large as whole story episodes, and sometimes this can be as small as sentences or phrases. How it works is that the first idea parallels the last idea, the second idea parallels the next-to-last idea, the third idea parallels the third to last idea, and so on. In many cases there is an unparalleled center point, sometimes there is not. Often the various parallels help to interpret each other, sometimes it is just more of a poetic aesthetic (like repeating a phrase with the same or similar wording).

Since much of the Bible was designed to be spoken and transmitted by word of mouth, chiasmus was often the form the Biblical authors chose to use. If you remember the first half of a story, it is much easier to remember the second half. Here is a fun example…

Genesis 6:1-4

1When the number of people started to increase throughout the fertile land, daughters were born to them. 2The divine beings saw how beautiful these human women were, so they married the ones they chose. 3The Lord said, “My breath will not remain in humans forever, because they are flesh. They will live one hundred and twenty years.” 4In those days, giants lived on the earth and also afterwards, when divine beings and human daughters had sexual relations and gave birth to children. These were the ancient heroes, famous men.

Genesis 6 1-4 Chiasm

Verse 3 seems a bit out of place until you notice that it is the center point of a chiasm. This Bible passage could appear as something of a factual description of what was going on, but when it is understood to be part of a chiasm, the meaning becomes clearer. Since verse three is the climax of the chiasm it leads to the conclusion that God is displeased by these relationships between divine beings and human daughters. In the literature of the ancient world (particularly in the Epic of Gilgamesh), one of the ways people faced their mortality was through doing acts to make themselves famous. When the story is understood in its chiastic form it is possible to see the conclusion, with the famous heroes, to be a rejection of the mortality God has imposed.

There are other literary devices in the Bible as well. Some are a lot like what we still use today, for example: puns and wordplays. Most English translations just can’t capture the rhyming of the original languages. Everett Fox, in an effort to help an English audience see some of the textual play going on, translated the Pentateuch to highlight these fun rhythms and inside jokes of the Biblical text. Occasionally you may find a note in an English translation, like the Common English Bible, that remarks ‘the Hebrew sounds like such and such’ to help draw the reader’s attention to some of the more well known wordplays in the Bible.

Yes, there are jokes in the Bible too. One downside to people reading the Bible literally is that some of these jokes are taken far too seriously. One great example that I love is in the story of the Tower of Babel. Most every Christian will say that God is present everywhere. So what does it mean to talk about a tower that was meant to reach the heavens, when God “has to come down” to see it (Genesis 11:5)? Clearly the height of the tower is being mocked by the Biblical author, rather than God being understood as some type of “old man” who resides up in the sky far away.


     As you may understand by now, translators have an impossible task trying to communicate all of the meaning the scriptural text has. This is, of course, why many Bible commentaries and Bible study material has been written, as well as why there are so very many English translations of the Bible. No translation is ever perfect. Unfortunately, there are also times when people’s theological agendas get in the way of translating the Bible accurately. One of the most famous Bible verses in this regard today is Romans 16:7. Depending on what English Bible translation you have in front of you, it might refer to a woman, “Junia,” or a man, “Junias.” Some more conservative Bible translators don’t believe that women can be pastors today, much less back in New Testament times, so they changed “Junia” to “Junias” thinking it had to be a mistake that there was mention of a woman being an Apostle. Well, other scholars have noted that the name “Junias” does not appear on any ancient writings, so the newest conservative Bible translations have the name switched back to Junia. They haven’t given up though, so you will find that many of those new conservative Bible translations have instead chosen to alter the meaning from Junia being a prominent Apostle to Junia being prominent according to the Apostles.

Thus far I have discussed a wide variety of problems and quirks of Bible translation. This shouldn’t cause us to despair. They don’t amount to any kind of dramatic shift in the basic meaning of the Bible. Martin Luther was surely onto something when he translated the Bible into German so everyday people could read the Bible. Indeed, the Bible should be available for all people to read, because God is still speaking to us through it.

Choosing a Bible

     I hope you will take up the challenge to read through the Bible in a year. Further, I would recommend reading the Bible in a different translation than you are accustomed to. There are several good translations out there. My favorite is the Common English Bible for a variety of reasons. Eugene Peterson’s The Message is an interesting combination of both translation and paraphrase. Since Peterson was using the Hebrew and Greek texts it is a translation, but since he is looking to convey the meaning of the text rather than choose words and sentence structure that closely resemble the original languages, it is also a paraphrase. This does mean that sometimes he can provide a more accurate rendition of the text than a more literal translation. One good example of this is Deuteronomy 6:5 that the Common English Bible renders as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” To the ancient Hebrews, you define something not through precision, but by tossing around a bunch of terms and ideas so the audience gets the point. In this way Peterson translates the verse as, “Love GOD, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!” In that way it is more accurate to the meaning the author intended, even if it isn’t a word-for-word translation.

While some readers may have grown up with King James Bibles, it is far from the most accurate translation available today. Many archaeological discoveries, particularly the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and advances in textual criticism have resulted in more accurate and easy to read English translations of the Bible. My personal top three Bible translations are the Common English Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and Eugene Peterson’s The Message. The Message is especially good if you have already read through the entire Bible, if you find reading to be a problem in general, or if you want a fresh and unique translation. Others that may be worth a look are the New Living Translation and either the Today’s New International Version or the 2011 update of the New International Version (primarily because of the improvements made with those revisions). In the end though, let me assure you that God can speak no matter what translation you are reading.


     What does all this talk of Bible translation mean? There is always more going on in the Bible than you realize! Understanding the Bible is a lifelong journey, not a destination. God inspired the authors of the Bible. God works through Bible scholars today to help us better understand the original meaning of the Bible. God inspires us as we read the Bible. I recommend reading the Bible with an open-mind, and don’t assume the way you read it, or the way that God inspires you through it, is the only way it can be understood. Prepare yourself to encounter the Word of God as you read the words of scripture. This can be an amazing journey, one that I hope you will join me on for 2015!


© 2014 Lee Karl Palo


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Christian Witness about Homosexuality

Question Mark

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo


          Finally, a resolution to the long ordeal of Rev. Frank Schaefer has come down. Rev Schaefer, who performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for his son, can now continue with his appointed ministry in the denomination he is a member of. This is, of course, a resolution that could never please all parties within the denomination. In the grand scheme of things, it just happens to be the most recent high-profile case involving questions of sexuality and the church that has been a source of division in Mainline Protestant denominations over the last decade-and-a-half. What lessons can we draw from events like this with regard to the future of the church?

The issue of whether a denomination should be open and affirming toward LGBTQ persons of faith or should condemn homosexual practice is a very divisive one. If nothing else, it helps to create negative perceptions about church in general regardless of denominational identity. What do the unchurched think when they hear of all this conflict within various Christian groups? One may wonder if such negative perceptions are unavoidable given that there is seen to be a lot at stake by those who take a stand on the issue.

Certainly a complicating factor for this problem is the frequently vitriolic nature of discourse and debate on the internet. People often feel free to comment with anonymity or impunity, and the more people feel their opinions are ignored or marginalized, the more they can become inappropriately aggressive in their responses. Anger and fear physiologically drive us toward conclusions upon which we can immediately act, and are generally not helpful for thoughtful dialogue.

How then can we get beyond these problems and actually have constructive and helpful debate on the issue? An often trite answer is to just listen to what other people are saying. This is a good principle, but not everyone is trained in how to listen closely and effectively. The debate over homosexuality and the church is one area where people often talk at others rather than to others they disagree with. It also seems like those with whom we disagree really aren’t listening to us either. How is this?

What is going on?

          The problem with this issue is that there is no agreed upon definition of terms for the debate. People are actually listening at times, but they only hear words in ways they themselves have defined them, not how those who are speaking define their words. So, you may ask, what is the difference in definitions? I initially described the debate about homosexuality as being about whether the church should be open and affirming of LGBTQ persons of faith or whether homosexual practice should be condemned. This is not accidental. One side views the debate as whether or not LGBTQ people are to be welcomed into the church, while the other side views the debate as whether or not the practice of homosexuality is to be condemned. In an attempt to avoid pejorative terminology, the former position is commonly called the “progressive” position, while the latter position is called “traditional.”

Progressives believe that the debate about homosexuality is ultimately about the very personhood of LGBTQ folks. Seen from this viewpoint, no factor of someone’s innate makeup should bar them from participation in the church. Traditionalists, by contrast believe that the debate about homosexuality is ultimately about ethical behavior, specifically that homosexual practice is seen to be unethical in all circumstances. Thus sin should be called sin, from this perspective.

Both progressives and traditionalists use their respective definitions and don’t at all embrace the other side’s definitions. How could a person possibly not be who they were born as? If you are Caucasian, you can’t not be Caucasian, for example. Thus if you are LGBTQ, you can’t not be LGBTQ, so say the progressives. To the traditionalists, people always have a choice about whether they will sin or not. Not everyone suffers from the same temptations, so why should there be an exemption for certain acts clearly understood to be sin?

The debate between these two sides not using definitions in common for the same terms can, and often does, degenerate very quickly. Lets look at how this plays out for each side of the debate…

* * * *

          A traditionalist perceives progressives as advocating for the acceptance of certain types of sin and wonders what the next sin will be that progressives will no longer call sin. Progressives are seen by traditionalists to be promoters of immoral behavior. This makes sense if homosexuality is only defined in terms of certain proscribed sex acts. Traditionalists very often advocate loving sinners and hating the sin. But what happens if, as the progressives see it, this issue isn’t about sin at all?

* * * *

          A progressive perceives the issue as being about the rejection of a certain class of people for no other reason than who they are intrinsically. For traditionalists to say “love the sin but hate the sinner” can only mean to LGBTQ persons that they can never be allowed to be or express part of their deepest identity under any and all circumstances. It is a rejection of the highest order. For progressives, the only parallel in recent memory is that of racism. Thus traditionalists are seen by progressives as bigoted and racist.

* * * *

          To traditionalists, since they only perceive the issue as being about immoral behavior, it doesn’t make sense to them to be called “racist.” How can one possibly be a racist for saying that an immoral act is immoral? An analogy would be to not condemn robbery as an immoral act—there are plenty of acts we rightly condemn as immoral, so it doesn’t make sense to be called a racist for making certain ethical judgments. It thus appears to traditionalists that progressives are using the ad hominem fallacy (calling them pejorative names) when progressives call traditionalists “racist.” But to progressives how could traditionalists not be seen as anything but racist when they reject people for no reason other than the way they were born?

* * * *

          When progressives hear that traditionalists are calling progressives immoral, it also appears to be an ad hominem. How could it be, the progressive wonders, that they are advocating for immoral behavior when they advocate for same-sex marriage? Is not marriage the most universally agreed upon best-context for sexual relations? It should be the most moral thing to do to not only talk about sexual ethics but to also promote a healthier alternative to promiscuous behavior—that of marriage (be it “traditional” or same-sex marriage).

* * * *

          Perhaps by now you can see all the more why the debate on homosexuality and the church often gets heated and vitriolic. Each side frequently hears the other side calling them names, like “racist” or “immoral,” that don’t make sense to them. But of course the names make appropriate labels of the other side by those doing the labeling. …all because of a difference in the definitions of the basic terms used in the debate. If you take the time and listen very carefully, you can discern these differences in definition. Notice how examples are given by traditionalists of other sexual sins beyond homosexuality. They are treating the discussion as one of sexual ethics, not something like genetics or discrimination. Traditionalists wonder if those other sexual sins are going to be the next things to become acceptable by progressives in the church. To them sin is sin no matter what the sin happens to be, so if one sin is not to be any longer considered sin, where’s the criteria to say other things are or are not sin anymore? Notice also how progressives don’t talk about the issue being one of sin, but as being about God’s love for all people—being about justice and human rights for all people. How can someone be condemned for something akin to the color of their skin? Shouldn’t people be able to be ethically and responsibly who they are, and not be forced to be something they are not?

So what does all this mean for the future of the Church?

          It isn’t easy for many people to listen this closely, because when feelings get riled then carefully reasoned debate often gets lost. People in general are sensitive to being called names. How can the church get past the vitriol, when it is intrinsic to the debate? What does the nature of this debate say to those outside of the church? American society as a whole has embraced the progressive definition of homosexuality as being fundamentally about a person’s intrinsic identity. This means that for a very vocal percentage of the Christian population who identify with the traditionalist position, they are being perceived as racist, bigoted, and irrational, not only by progressives within the church, but by those outside of the church as well. And thus traditionalist arguments against homosexual practice are doomed to make little or no headway to those outside of the church. But when the debate within the church gets heated, as it is prone to do, how will the unchurched perceive progressive “attacks” on traditionalists?

No matter which side of the debate you are on, will they (those outside of the church) know that we are Christians by our love? This issue is not merely a matter of whether you are a progressive or a traditionalist, but how you conduct yourself in the debate. If you don’t understand how you are being perceived by those on the other side of the debate, how can you hope to make any headway with them? How can you hope to reach those outside of the church with a welcoming message of God’s grace, particularly when you are perceived to be anything but kind or welcoming to some of your fellow Christians?

* * * *

Does Jesus’ admonishment to love your enemy have relevance here? How are you going to talk about, or talk to, those with whom you disagree?


© 2014 Lee Karl Palo


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