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.
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…
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.
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