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My Life and Educational Experiences for Bible Study

My Life and Educational Experiences for Bible Study

When I am introduced to speak or teach, mention will doubtless be made of my MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages, though the correct degree name will be shortened, and the language skill usually exaggerated. In my mind, however, there are many things that have contributed to my study of the Bible. I’ve never encountered a biblical scholar who found this surprising, but sometimes non-academics are surprised.

I thought I’d list some of the key experiences, many of them not of my choice, which have nonetheless been critical in forming my thinking and informing my study.

  1. Bible memorization. As a preteen and early teenager I attended a small private school where we memorized substantial Bible passages. By substantial I mean that we memorized Psalm 119, all 176 verses, Genesis 1 & 2, many Psalms, Luke 2, and so forth. We also memorized scatterings of texts on various topics. This memorization, which I certainly would not have accomplished if it had not been required, has nonetheless stuck with me and helps me see the broader picture. I don’t have to go read Isaiah 53 or 58, because I memorized them, and though I could not repeat them in the KJV (which we used), I still have a fair idea what’s there.
  2. Bible survey. At the same school we were required to memorize titles for most of the chapters (we covered the Psalms by knowing what chapters were in the five books). Along with memorizing, this again helped me with an overview, and made it much easier to find content that I need. I still surprise people by pointing them to a book and range of chapters even when I’m not sure of the specific verse they’re looking for. Further, we had workbooks which asked questions about the text of the entire Bible. These were not thought questions, but content questions. I think it’s unfortunate that people who teach critical and independent thinking often forget that having the facts at hand is useful in thinking, and those who teach the facts often forget that facts strewn about the landscape are not so helpful unless they are critically examined and ordered. Sometimes “Bible study” turns into a simple recitation of opinions, in part because students are so unaccustomed to reading the text and making their own judgment regarding the meaning.
  3. History and historiography. There is an obvious benefit to knowing biblical history and related ancient history. I think some study of other history–any other history–is of great value as well. One of the problems we have with studying the Bible both “seriously and faithfully” is that we make up special methods for studying it as opposed to other texts. We also make up rules for studying biblical history which might not be accepted elsewhere. There’s no substitute for actually reading and studying some good texts on history unrelated to the Bible.
  4. Sociology. I hated my undergraduate sociology, but I’ve come to value that area of study, though I still consider the one undergraduate course I took to have been seriously deficient. People are people, and studying how people behave and respond helps me read Bible stories more faithfully.
  5. And yes, language. Learning to read the biblical languages is valuable in many ways, including being able to spot nuances in the way things are expressed more easily. One of the most important things I learned, however, was how complex the process of translation can be. When you are first learning to read another language (and often for much longer), you are really mentally translating the text into your native language. It can be a struggle and should give you a great appreciation for those who translate on a professional basis. It’s so much easier to criticize scattered renderings where you have a strong opinion than it is to produce a quality translation of a substantial portion of the source text.
  6. English, my native language. The process of understanding an ancient text and then expressing it in modern terms will tax your knowledge of and fluency in your native tongue. Many times I have been trying to express something from the Greek or Hebrew text and have stumbled for lack of a good English expression. Many really bad ideas in biblical studies have resulted from this, such as claims that “English can’t really express this idea.” The real issue is can you use your native language creatively.
  7. Church life. I don’t think you’ll understand the Bible unless you’ve experienced church. I don’t mean that church is such a good representation of what’s in the Bible. Usually not so much. But a great deal of the Bible story is about people trying to form and maintain communities, and if you haven’t actually tried, you may not understand them. I hate church politics, but at the same time church politics is a necessary thing. Politics is what happens when people try to act together. You can do it well or poorly, morally or immorally, but you will have to do it.
  8. Experiencing family. I have nothing against folks who are single, and I remained single until I was 42, and then married and acquired a family all at once. When I was single I was always of the opinion that raising children was likely more difficult than I could imagine. I was right! But again, understanding people who thought of themselves as God’s family is easier after experiencing the parent side of being a family as well as the child side.

There are other things that have helped, but I hope I have made the point that there are many things other than languages, and indeed many things other than academic study that help one understand. These other elements are even more important if one wants to teach. Being able to clearly express a set of ideas involves not only knowing those ideas well, but also knowing the medium of expression (language, art, etc.) and the audience well. The hermit professor, sitting like Simeon Stylites atop an ivory tower, has little impact on the world around.

But further, I suspect not one reader of this post does not have one or more of the experiences I listed, or perhaps others I have not. That means that the person without the degree in biblical languages also has a contribution to make. We ought all be prepared to listen and learn.

Craig Blomberg, Reviewed by Louis Markos, Commented by Mike Licona

Craig Blomberg, Reviewed by Louis Markos, Commented by Mike Licona

… or On the Meaning of Words, Particularly Inerrancy

There’s a post on First Things titled Ehrman Errant. Now criticizing Ehrman is apparently great sport, and Blomberg has replied to some of the types of criticisms Ehrman presents in a book, which Louis Markos reviews. The reason I mention Mike Licona, a colleague of Markos, is that he makes a comment on precisely the section that led me back around in a circle to the beginning of the piece. As a quick note, I previously reviewed Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus, but  have not read either The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture or Blomberg’s book that is reviewed here. I’m basing my comments strictly on the review and the comments to it.

The problem, as I see it, is one of language and communication. How do you communicate a message to a particular person in particular circumstances? When we are communicating in a way that might later be read by others, how do we accomplish this. As a simple example, if I want a two-year-old not to fall off the porch, I might try explaining gravity, acceleration rates, and probabilities of various injuries based on the height of the porch and the nature of the ground below. Or, more intelligently, I might just close the door, or say no (and enforce it). In fact, preparing to write this led me to write a humorous (I hope) short story for my fiction blog titled Genesis Wasn’t Written This Way.

When we start talking about biblical inerrancy, however, we are by nature talking about language. What does the word “inerrancy” mean? How are people going to perceive me if I say I believe in inerrancy? What if I say I don’t? And that, in turn, depends on who you are. If you’re a professor in an evangelical seminary, it seems to me that you understand this term differently than the people in the pews of the United Methodist church I attend. So the question is this: Who am I talking to?

Let me start from the end. Louis Markos complains about Blomberg’s chapter on gender-neutral language. He says:

Blomberg, along with the translators of the NRSV, NLT, CEV, and NIV 2011, take it for granted that the convention of using “man” or “mankind” to designate the human race is merely cultural. It is not. It is God himself who originally made the designation: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2; ESV).

To which his colleague, Mike Licona objects in the comments:

… There are some passages that call for a gender neutral translation….

And the reason, I think, that there are passages that call for a gender neutral translation is that language changes. It is not that we have new discoveries in Hebrew and Greek that mean that we should translate gender references differently. Rather, our usage in English has changed. Markos can quote the ESV, “God created man,” but the word used was not the English “man,” but, of course, the Hebrew adam. That word refers to humanity (in this case), not just the male persons within that broader designation. So the question in translation would be how we refer to humanity today.

Similarly, consider the Greek adlephoi. It’s a plural and at one time would have been translated “brethren.” For some time, it was translated in that way and it was often understood to refer to the whole congregation, male and female together. But does it mean that to audiences now?

Some years ago I tested this with a couple of classes I was teaching on translation. The classes broke somewhere between 30 and 40 years of age. Those older than that thought “brethren” referred to the guys. Those younger thought it referred to everyone. I suspect the break point would be younger now as the culture moves.

Now you can complain about the culture, but nonetheless in those mythical “good old days” people were understanding verses that used the Greek adelphoi, translated as “brethren” to refer to both genders. If you translate that way now, you introduce an inaccuracy, because your audience doesn’t understand it the same way as their ancestors did. You can complain all day that they should. You can wish they would spend more time reading older literature and thus understand this important (to you) point. But they aren’t going to. Now if you want a scriptural admonition to refer to the whole congregation, you need to use something like “brothers and sisters.” Not all instances of adelphoi should be so translated. That depends on the intent of the writer. Who was he referring to?

I recall a pastor, a good friend, who complained to me about the NRSV because it used “brothers and sisters.” He preferred the RSV, because it kept the traditional language. The next Sunday he was preaching and read a verse from the RSV that included “brothers.” He immediately looked up and said to the congregation, “And that means you sisters too!” His pastoral instinct was better than his translation theory.

But how does this relate to inerrancy? Inerrancy is, of course, a word, and it has meaning—to people. Meaning apart from meaning to some person or group is meaningless. Somebody understands a meaning. Blomberg is arguing that there are errors in transmission, but they are not critical, they don’t damage the message or the value of the whole. But that is not the same as the absence of errors. It is an absence of important errors. Blomberg’s position isn’t some new thing. It’s pretty standard evangelical theology. If preachers, teachers, and other church leaders made this point from the pulpit or the lectern somewhat more often, we’d probably have less problems with a critic such as Ehrman. But people out there in the pews pretty generally think that “without error” means there are no errors, not that there are no errors that theologians deem important.

The same thing applies when we criticize others for using “verification system that has only existed for some 250 years” (1st paragraph). This is the verification system and the level of factual and numerical accuracy that people expect these days. If I say, “_____ is without error” they generally assume it is without error as they perceive errors. Yes, there are variations in this, but we actually tend to put words on them. It might not be precisely inaccurate for me to say it’s 80 degrees outside if it’s 78 or 79 degrees. But I’d normally be expected to say “about” if I were to mess with numbers in this way.

Well, the Bible doesn’t use numbers in the way we moderns expect them to be used, and it’s inappropriate to expect it to. Biblical literature has genre and literary standards and they are those of the time and place when those texts were written. But if you’re going to then label the Bible inerrant, a term that is itself new, you have to specify the standard by which that is measured. (I’m not claiming that the concept, depending on which concept of inerrancy is involved, is new.) So if we’re going to expect people to apply a different standard when determining whether something in the Bible is an error, then we need to make sure they understand the standard.

There is a tendency amongst scholars now to use words that mean definite things to most hearers, but then to back off and ask to be judged by a different standard. The gospels are not histories in the modern sense. Just so! They aren’t. But if they aren’t histories in the modern sense, then don’t expect to use them as such without having them judged as such. If I claim that Jesus performed miracles (and I do), I can’t say that the reason is simply that they were recorded in inerrant gospels. Why? Because I’ve also just said that those gospels don’t meet modern historical standards. Personally, I think it’s a good thing that they don’t. I think they are much more important than any document that met modern historical standards would be. Not that a modern style history wouldn’t have it’s uses, it just wouldn’t have the same uses as a gospel.

But I think that we play sleight of hand with the terminology. “The gospels aren’t modern history so you can pretty much accept their view of Jesus without judging them by modern historical standards,” is a philosophical and historical way of having your cake and eating it too. I believe in Jesus, but I do not do so because the gospels demonstrate this in a sense a modern historian could accept.

One more thing. Someone is bound to suggest to me that I should always apply the definitions used by qualified theologians. Those are the definitions that matter. I think that’s wrong. I don’t communicate with very many trained theologians. I don’t write for them, I’m never invited to speak to them (probably for good reason), so I’m not going to use words that communicate with them but not with the audience I’m actually addressing. For me, because I teach Sunday School classes in a United Methodist church and occasionally speak as a guest at various churches, the appropriate meaning of inerrancy is the one they’re going to hear when I use the term.


Design Language and Evolution

Design Language and Evolution

Charles Jones has a post a Power of Suggestion in which he notes the following:

But evolution can’t “allow” things, because it’s unguided. And it can’t make any mistakes, because it makes no decisions. Take note: whenever people try to explain how something happens through evolution, they always resort to the language of design.

Now there are quite a lot of problems with the usage of language that is involved here, one of which is referring to evolution–a process–as an “it[-with-consciousness]” that does or does not do particular things. If we think of evolution as a process, however, without trying to make it into an entity, it’s quite proper to refer to a process “allowing” certain things and excluding others.

While evolution may not be guided, there are things that work and things that don’t. Body forms develop in certain ways, both because those ways work and thus the possessors of the form in question survive, but also because the possible alterations in a form are limited. Perhaps if some different body organizations had survived the Cambrian, we would have a different set of alternatives now.

So evolution can “allow” or “disallow” certain options, provided one is thinking not of the conscious decisions of an acting person, but rather the constraints of a process. Think of a simple filter. Let’s consider a box with a mesh covering the bottom. Gravel and sand is poured into the top, and the filter only allows rocks of a particular size to pass through. It doesn’t make mistakes; what happens simply happens because of the constraints–or lack thereof–in the process.

There are two major ways in which language about evolution gets confused. First, we have a failure to see language in its proper context. The word “allow” has a different sense when used to say, “The mother allowed her son to cross the street alone”, as opposed to saying “the filter allowed the smaller rocks to pass but stopped the larger ones.” The mother may have been mistaken in what she allowed; the filter either works or perhaps some of the wires are broken. But it can’t be mistaken!

The second, however, can be more dangerous. We have evolved language to deal with things in our more immediate environment. For most people, a year is a long time. Long term planners may think in decades. Few think in centuries. But evolution occurs over the course of billions of years. Thus we start with a problem. We have to move to observing the present and inferring things about the past. We see this confusion regularly in discussions of whether evolutionary theory is really science.

But even further, we have to look at natural processes that accomplish results. Now at first, as primitive human beings, we would think of events simply as individual happenings. So language to discuss processes would almost always involve an actor. In fact, when we filled our universe with spirits and gods, they very often fulfilled that need of an actor.

But for a process that simply happens because that’s the way it is, we’re a bit short on words, and we’re often uncomfortable with those that we have invented. Note the insecurity produced by the words “random” or “unguided.”

Yet as a theist who accepts evolutionary theory, I believe that even the unguided processes are not, ultimately, absolutely unguided. They’re just unguided in the sense in which we are used to using the terms. If there is a God who created the laws of the universe, then the processes that are constrained by those laws are ultimately fulfilling his will, even if his will was only that those processes work in that way.

Nonetheless, perhaps we need a language to describe action without conscious intervention. Or, on the other hand, we could just realize that the language of design used in describing unguided or remotely guided processes is metaphorical.

Ultimately, you can see, I don’t believe language makes reality. It just simultaneously makes it possible to discuss something, while also making it a bit confusing. It too evolved with constraints.