Thursday, September 20, 2012

The NET Bible

A Bible translation specifically designed for the internet?  That is what the NET Bible started out as being but you can get various printed copies of it now.  It was designed to be freely quotable without copyright restrictions but now has copyright restrictions.

All a bit confusing but it does retain one of its original virtues:  Because space on the net is a lot cheaper than paper, the version comes complete with VERY extensive notes, probably as extensive as the old Companion Bible, which was a HUGE tome.

So I was interested in how the NET translators handled John 1:1, in which John stresses the role of Jesus as God's messenger.  John puts that very strongly from the beginning by referring to Jesus as God's WORD. 

The straightforward meaning of the text is however generally distorted by the Trinitarian thinking of the translators.  John stresses that Jesus is an ancient spirit being who became  incarnated but specifically rules out the idea that Jesus is also the Creator (everything was done THROUGH (di) him, not BY him).  Most translators glide over that bit however.  They say:  "The word was God", creating the impression that Jesus was the creator.

The trouble is that in the ancient Greek the usage of the word for "the" was different, and John wrote in the Greek way  whereas the translators usually do not.  Furthermore, whoever you regarded as the chief God was always referred to in ancient Greek as THE God (ho theos).  To the pagans that was mostly Zeus and in the New Testament, exactly the same expression was used for the one God of the Hebrews.  So any reference to "God" in the English NT is a translation of "The God" in the original Greek.  The "The" is normally dropped in English but is regularly used in Greek. 

But if the "the" (ho) is dropped in Greek that is a very different story.  And John DOES drop it in John 1:1.  John refers to the creator as "ho theos" but Jesus is merely "theos".

So what does it mean when John refers to the creator as "ho theos" and Jesus as "theos"?  In normal Greek usage the noun without the "the" becomes indefinite and can be translated in John 1:1 as either "a god" or "divine".  So what John is saying quite clearly  is that the Word was NOT the creator, even though Jesus in his pre-human form was also an ancient spirit being.

The idea that there is more than one spirit being in Heaven is of course no particular problem. We read of angels there and Paul promised the early Christians that they would become spirit beings too.

So the plain meaning of John is disliked by trinitarians who are convinced that Jesus is in some puzzling way also the creator.  So they translate "kai theos een ho Logos" as "the Word was God" when a literal translation would be "the word was a god".

I could go on about exceptions  in Greek grammar for the use of the definite article but verse 4 shows John was using the article in the regular way I have outlined.  What I have said above is just scene-setting, however.  I want to look at how the NET Bible treats the passage.

They have extensive notes on it and discuss fairly fully the issues I have outlined.  They say, for instance: 
"Colwell’s Rule is often invoked to support the translation of θεός (theos) as definite (“God”) rather than indefinite (“a god”) here....  The translation “what God was the Word was” is perhaps the most nuanced rendering, conveying that everything God was in essence, the Word was too. This points to unity of essence between the Father and the Son without equating the persons....  The construction in John 1:1c does not equate the Word with the person of God (this is ruled out by 1:1b, “the Word was with God”); rather it affirms that the Word and God are one in essence.

So, knowing all that, what translation do they give in their main text?  They give: "The Word was fully God"  -- which is just about the opposite of what they knew the passage to mean!  Disgraceful!

So I am not impressed by the NET Bible either.

Another Bible translation  that is famous for its footnotes is the old Geneva Bible, a translation even older than the KJV.  And in their footnotes they interpret the passage to mean that the Word was of "the selfsame essence or nature" as the creator, which is pretty fair.  Once again, I find that a translation from the early days of Protestantism is more respectful of the original Bible text than are most modern versions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The NIV as a servant of Protestant theology

The "New International Version" translation of the Bible has been very widely adopted in Protestant circles but its claim to be a faithful rendering of the original texts is hollow.  I am not alone in seeing it as the servant of Protestant theology,  as  the examples here show --but I thought it might be useful to add a couple of other examples which I regard as rather gross and which may be a bit clearer than the examples given in the link above.

In Genesis 2:4 the KJV refers to "the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens".  That is of course a bit inconvenient  -- did creation take one day or seven days? -- so my 1978 edition of the NIV simply replaces "the day that" with "when".  That is a perfectly reasonable  theological interpretation of the original text but it is not what the original text actually says.  The Hebrew word concerned means simply  "in the day".  See here.

And the revised NIV issued last year seems to be even worse than my original 1978 edition.  As soon as I heard that it featured "inclusive" language I resolved not to buy it.  When political correctness steamrollers what the Bible writers actually wrote, we know we are in the Devil's hands.  If they cannot translate pronouns accurately, what hope is there for accuracy  in more difficult passages? 

As it happens, however,  a reader has sent me an excerpt, apparently from the new edition, which renders 1 Corinthians 20, 21 as:

"So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk".

But the word "private" is a complete interpolation that is not even in the 1978 NIV edition.  There is no such word in the original Greek  -- only the word "idion" (own).  The point of the interpolation is an attempt to undermine the meaning of verse 20, which rather clearly denies that the communal meals of the early Christians constituted a celebration of the Lord's Supper  -- as I pointed out on 17th..

So the NIV is thoroughly polluted.  It is a work of theology as much as a translation and should be avoided by anyone interested  in what the Bible writers actually said.

But not everybody can go back to the original languages so what translation do I recommend?  Perverse as it undoubtedly seems, I use the original KJV version from the year 1611.  It is actually a pretty literal translation.  I think  that they had more respect for what the Bible actually said back then.

The recensions of the original texts that they had back then -- such as "Stephanus" -- were undoubtedly inferior to modern recensions such as Nestle but all recensions are around 99% identical anyway.  I wish I could say the same for translations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Lord's supper

The Lord's supper is a central event in Christian life.  Just about all Christian denominations commemorate it at Easter (though the Eastern Orthodox are a bit pesky about when Easter is) and, in the form of the Mass, devout Catholics can commemorate it every day if they wish.

So where does Christian practice in the matter come from?  Is it Biblical?  Sort of.  Below are the commandments concerning it in  the Bible.

Mark 14
[22] And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.
[23] And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
[24] And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
[25] Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

Matthew 26
[26] And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
[27] And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;
[28] For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
[29] But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.

Luke  22
[14] And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him.
[15] And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer:
[16] For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
[17] And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:
[18] For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
[19] And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
[20] Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

1 Corinthians 11
[20] When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.
[21] For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.
[22] What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.
[23] For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
[24] And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
[25] After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
[26] For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.
[27] Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
[28] But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
[29] For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.
[30] For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
[31] For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
[32] But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.
[33] Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.
[34] And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come.

"This do in remembrance of me" is pretty plain but at the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, I want to ask what "This" is.  Was it not a Passover celebration and is it not a special celebration of the Passover that Jesus commanded?  I think any Christian who was  careful to obey Christ's commands would do so by  observing the Passover.  You can draw other inferences about what "This" is but why run the risk of getting it wrong?

Against that proposition, however, we have the account of early Christian practice from Paul in Corinthians.  Theologians claim that it describes a celebration that went on whenever there were meetings of the original congregations.  So it was much more frequent than the Passover, which is annual.

To me that seems however totally perverse.  Paul starts out saying that "When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper".  How plain can you be?  Paul is saying exactly the opposite of what the theologians claim.  Apparently, there was a custom of a communal meal at meetings of the early Christian congregations and Paul is CONDEMNING that.  He says it defiles the SACRED meal of the Lord's supper.  Read the passage with that understanding and see if it makes sense.  To me it seems the only way to get a straightforward meaning out of it.  Theologians really have to twist themselves into a pretzel to get their meaning out of it, particularly in the light of verse 20.

So the whole of Christian practice in the matter seems fundamentally flawed to me.  And from that flow other  perverse responses to Christ's command.  The "this" that he commanded was a meal around some sort of table, probably where the meal was taken in the form of a Greek symposium -- that is,  where the diners were reclining rather than sitting up straight. I gather that a  Pesach seder in some Jewish circles is still done that way.  Be that as it may, however, there was certainly no kneeling or standing involved, unlike common Christian practice.

And perhaps it's a minor point of detail but the passing out of the bread and the wine were two quite separate events with a separate prayer before each.  That too seems to be unknown in  Christian practice.

And I won't go on about the wafers, grapejuice etc. which various Christian denominations substitute for the perfectly straightforward unleavened bread and wine.  Why are they so disrespectlful of their proclaimed Lord?  The connection between Christianity and the Bible gets very slender at times.

So there is only one commemoration that Christ commanded  -- not Easter and not Christmas -- and Christians bungle that.  But I guess their Lord is merciful.  It is a good thing that the Christian god is not as demanding as Yahveh, though.  Religious  Jews have a much tougher time than Christians.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exodus, Moses and Zipporah

I have been reading Exodus again.  Trouble ahead!  By general agreement, Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible.  Look it up and you will see what I mean.  Out of the blue it tells us  that Yahveh wanted to kill Moses.  No preamble, no explanation.  But Zipporah (wife of Moses) saved Moses from death by circumcising one of her sons

What gives?  The most usual answer is that Moses had got behind on his circumcising of his sons and Yahveh was mad about that.  So when Zip did the deed (with a sharp rock!) Moses was off the hook.

But the text doesn't say that.  It does not say what got Yahveh mad.  And what Zip said when she did the cut doesn't seem to relate to anything anyway.  She touched Moses's feet with the detached flesh and said:  “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me".  Was it some sort of wedding?

So what is a "bridegroom of blood" anyway and why did that mollify Yahveh?

I think I can suggest a very tentative answer:  Blood was identified with life in the OT and the Israelites were even forbidden to eat the blood of their animals (Leviticus 17:14).  Hence Kosher slaughter to this day. No black pudding for Jews!  So spilling blood was a big-deal sort of sacrifice and Yahveh liked sacrifices.  And the point of Zip's words was that she and Moses were joint authors of that sacrifice.

And why was Yahveh mad at Moses in the first place?  Because Moses had been a big-time foot-dragger (what's the Yiddish for people like that?) up until that point.  Yahveh had to wheedle him to undertake his mission to Egypt.  So Yahveh  simply got fed up with Moses. 

If my account of Yahveh portays him in a very human light, forgive me.  Exodus does the same.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Akhnaten and Moses  -- a connection?

The first monotheist known to secular history was the "heretical" Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten.  To him the sun was the only God.  When he died all his temples were torn down and much was done to erase his memory. Traditional Egyptian polytheism resumed.

So what about those Egyptians who had accepted Akhnaten's religion -- which after all was a pretty commonsense one  --  You could see the sun moving about and feel its importance? The presence of other gods was much less evident.

So it is reasonable to believe that the Akhnaten cult was hard to erase and many true believers might have remained.  Such believers would however be seen as a threat to the restored state religion and would no doubt have been persecuted. 

And at the height of the persecution might they not have fled Egypt across the Sinai and into lands out of the immediate control of the Pharaohs -- Pharaohs who would indoubtedly have been weakened by the Akhnaten episode. And might they not have been led by a priest of Akhnaten named Moses?

So I wonder why the Israelites of old are not generally seen as remnants of the Akhnaten cult?  The dates are reasonably close.  Some put the Akhnaten cult before the Biblical exodus and some put it after.  But both Biblical and Egyptian chronology contain considerable uncertainties so there is no real chronological reason to exclude the hypothesis.  And one might note that the troubles of the Israelites in Egypt began when a "new king" came to power (Exodus 1:8).

The main reason for not making the identification would be that the Israeli God is not a sun God.  He is more a personal God whom Moses and his assistant used to meet face-to-face (Exodus 33:11) and who was handy with stone carving and who thought it was very important to cook a young goat the right way (Exodus 34:1-26).  But this personalization of the Deity (by Moses?) and giving him a personal name (Yahweh/Jehovah -- See Psalms 83:18) was a normal thing among the people of the times so I don't really see that as a major difficulty.  That monotheism should have arisen in two neigbouring places at roughly the same time seems more than a coincidence to me.  So am I alone these days in thinking that?  I seem to be almost alone.   Sigmund Freud mentioned the theory back in the '30s but it does not seem to have caught on.  Though there is a slightly different  exploration of it here.

I can understand that believers in the literal interpretation of the Bible might object to my account as the Biblical account is very detailed and yet has no mention of a monotheistic Pharaoh.  But most historians of the period are not Biblical fundamentalists  so it is their silence which rather puzzles me.

Even many Christians who see the Bible as inspirational history rather than literal history should, it seems to me, find an independent record of the emergence of monotheism in roughly the same time and place as useful (if broad) confirmation of one of the foundational event of Israel's history.

Just in passing, I note that it is fairly clear that the Torah is not literal history.  As Wikipedia says:

"According to Exodus 12:37-38, the Israelites numbered "about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children," plus many non-Israelites and livestock. Numbers 1:46 gives a more precise total of 603,550. The 600,000, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites would have numbered some 2 million people, compared with an entire Egyptian population in 1250 BCE of around 3 to 3.5 million. Marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, they would have formed a line 150 miles long.  No evidence has been found that indicates Egypt ever suffered such a demographic and economic catastrophe or that the Sinai desert ever hosted (or could have hosted) these millions of people and their herds."  -- for 40 years at that.

I would see the numbers given as a way of stressing that Moses  had a big  following.