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Faith Made Active through Love

Faith Made Active through Love

despicableWhat groups of people do you think it’s alright to look down on?

Because in Christ neither circumcision or uncircumcision matters any more, but instead faith made active through love. – Galatians 5:6

Which, in turn, reminds me of:

Thus faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself. – James 2:17

It is possible that the conflict between James and Paul has been overstated.

But my key reason for pulling this text out of my morning reading, as I prepare for my online study tonight which I’ll post about later, is that it represents a broader principle. Sometimes we’re afraid to read between the lines, or better, to discover principles which apply in other circumstances.

These days, circumcision or not is a medical discussion for most people. Yes, it is still a mark of Judaism, but many are circumcised who are not Jews. So what is Paul talking about here? I believe he’s referring to the distinction in God’s favor between Jews and Gentiles. That was the church conflict of his time. Did one have to become a Jew first in order to be a follower of Jesus? Was entry to the family through circumcision?

In the prior four chapters of Galatians Paul has argued that this is not the case. Grace is open to all and is the way one becomes part of the family. Christians have read these four chapters and then either failed to continue reading, or treated chapter five as though it was some sort of advice tacked on to an otherwise theological letter.

That is not the case. The final chapters are a clear continuation of the intent of the earlier ones. My seminary class in Galatians only made it to chapter 4. We were supposed to read the rest, but we never discussed the latter part of the book in class. I don’t know if it was just time or if the professor intended it that way. But Paul wrote it as one document. For him, there was more than becoming part of the family, though that was important, demonstrated by four very heated chapters dedicated to talking about it.

Paul’s concern continued with living as part of God’s family. How do we live now that we’re “in”? That’s where we get to this verse.

Historical understanding is important. Historically this verse was about the distinction between Gentiles and Jews before God, i.e., as part of the family. (Don’t come to conclusions about other aspects of the relationship without reading Romans 1-3 & 9-11.) But it also expresses a principle.

We humans are good at creating distinctions and barriers. In fact, such distinctions are necessary to life. I hate “labeling” yet I must do it in order to talk. This post is filled with labels. If I label someone as “poor” so that I can despise that person and distinguish him from his betters, I’m creating a barrier. I might use the same label, however, to set that person aside as the one who should receive my help. The distinction between Jew and Gentile does still exist, as Paul would acknowledge. It just doesn’t mean that God loves Jews (circumcised) and hates or ignores Gentiles (uncircumcised). The distinction was necessary (and is necessary) for certain purposes (“God’s messages were entrusted to them” [Romans 3:2]), but is not to be used to distinguish those God loves and those God does not love.

Now what distinctions might you and I be using to divide people into acceptable and unacceptable groups? People loved by God and those who can be despised?

Here’s how Eugene Petersen renders Galatians 5:6 in The Message:

For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.*

Can I hear “ouch” instead of “amen”?

*Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ga 5:6). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Elements of the illustration I used were taken from

An Amazingly Bad Article on THE MESSAGE

An Amazingly Bad Article on THE MESSAGE

Well, not really so amazing. I’ve seen many like it, and it comes from the Worldview Weekend folks who have been spending their time being extraordinarily critical of other conservative Christian organizations.


I’m not going to run the article point by point. Rather, I’m interested in the general approach.

One common way of comparing Bible versions is to take a set of one’s favorite proof texts and determine whether one can still support one’s favorite doctrines using the translation in question. I want to distinguish this from the quite legitimate comparison of renderings for their quality. Orthodox doctrine is not created on the basis of a few lines of scripture and doesn’t fall based on one or two mistranslations. If it did, it would already have fallen.

I can’t find any translations on my shelves, including my favorites, that don’t have one rendering or another that I’d prefer were different. In many cases, I can get quite passionate about how a particular rendering is bad, and my preferred rendering is good. I consider such discussions entirely appropriate.

But in evaluating a translation, one needs to look at a number of things, including:

  1. The goals of the translation
  2. The method of translation employed
  3. A wide variety of texts, not just a few proof texts

In this analysis all of these items are ignored. Yes, the author says he could find many more issues, and doubtless he could. I found quite a number in my own reading of The Message, and personally I don’t like it all that much. At the same time, I’ve also found some exceptional renderings that are well worth reading.

More importantly, if a reader is using sound methods of biblical interpretation, one will still find orthodox doctrine in The Message. One may find certain texts don’t sound like what one expected in doctrinal terms, but in some cases, Peterson’s rendering is well justified.

The approach taken by Justin Peters in the referenced article is simply a failure. While I would not recommend using The Message as your sole Bible for study (I really wouldn’t recommend making any English translation exclusive), it can be a valuable tool in improving understanding. It is especially useful for reading large portions of scripture for an overview and for its cultural translation of the text.

Authors get their one idea of what a translation should be, and what information should be conveyed, and if they don’t find that, they think the translation is very bad. The fact is that all translations fail to convey part of the original, and do convey other parts. Which part is most important? Let the reader decide! This reader decides on variety.


Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

J. K. Gayle links to me in a post regarding the notion of “canon.” There’s a good discussion going in the comments as well. Let me note in passing that the label “personal canon” grates on me a bit. Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m referring to my reaction to it. I observe that it is often quite descriptive.

In the same post, he refers also to a canon of essays, and to the biblical canon(s), besides my sort of personal canon of Bible translations. I have dabbled in both of those areas myself, though I’m much less qualified (by virtue of reading) to comment on a canon of essays for educational reading than I am on the canon of scripture.

In fact, I have made a bit of a personal journey regarding the biblical (and extra-biblical) canon. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the SDA church affirms 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as do most protestant organizations. But SDAs, in addition, grant authority to the writings of Ellen G. White.

Many SDAs will likely object to this characterization and make the claim that they base all their beliefs on the Bible, but in my own experience, I encountered many people who placed Ellen White’s writings above the Bible. If there was a dispute about the interpretation of a Bible passage, Ellen White’s interpretation settled it for them. In cases where Ellen White was clearly wrong, they would insist that what Ellen White said was, in fact, what the Bible meant.

In addition, in areas on which the Bible is silent, they would accept Ellen White’s word as final in many areas, just as much as if they had read it in the Bible. So in practice, Ellen White’s writings became part of the canon of scripture.

So why don’t Seventh-day Adventists want to admit just how they use the writings of Ellen White? It’s this matter of canon. People in other organizations who make lists don’t include Ellen White, and if you want to be included by those people, you can’t violate the list. Other groups depart from Christian orthodoxy more than do SDAs, but they also claim to adhere to the lists.

When I returned to a Christian denomination some years after I left Adventism, it was  United Methodist congregation. Now Methodists affirm the same 66 books that SDAs affirm, but in general their theology is much more friendly to the extra-canonical books, and I personally tend to use a canon that includes the apocrypha. For what it’s worth, this is much easier to do if you are not too much of a literalist.

So whether I like the sound of “personal canon” all that much, it applies to me in some ways.

Similarly, while not dealing with essays, I have previously argued (here and here) that lists of great literature may not be as great as their advocates suggest. So I’m on this subjectivity bandwagon in all three of those areas. All of which leads people to trot out phrases like “post-modern morass of subjectivity.” So do I see any standards at all?

Let me go back to Bible translations. I maintain that different translation approaches convey different information from the source to the receptor language, or my help to communicate different things between the author of the source and the reader of the receptor. So there are aspects of the source texts of the Bible I can get from a formal translation such as the NRSV, but at the same time there are things that this misses. There are other things I can get from the CEV or even from The Message.

Enter the term “paraphrase.” Now to translation theorists, “paraphrase” has a rather precise meaning, but in common discussions it has become a pejorative for translations that are considered too loose to even be considered real translations. Thus someone might say: “The Message is not a translation, it’s a paraphrase.” I’ve heard this sentence or its equivalent regarding any of the dynamic or functional equivalence translations, in which case the speaker defines “translation” as something like a formal equivalence translation.

In practice, again, what takes a translation across the line, or puts it beyond the pale, may be quite variable. For example, is converting measures to modern units translation, paraphrase, or commentary? If you think that’s an easy issue, consider the measurements for Ezekiel’s temple (start in Ezekiel 40) and consider how that passage would read with precisely converted measurements. In that case one would substitute conveying an accurate idea of the distances involved for potentially conveying the symbolic meaning of the numbers (if any), or the fact that the numbers are round numbers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that there is a range of different translation options, and while we might what to define what is and what is not translation, there is a range of activities that may be called translation, and what we’re doing is setting boundaries. There are things we can definitely say are not translation. For example, I am not now translating any text. I’ve seen efforts by Greek students that could not be regarded as translations.

It’s not that just anything is a translation. Rather, there are many different methods that fall into the loose category “translation” and many different needs that might be fulfilled by those various approaches.

I think we have way to great a tendency to make the claim, inadequately supported, that a certain translation is wrong and should be something else. I hear it from the pulpit quite often, and generally my opinion is that the claim is incorrect. Sometimes the translation is disputed, and there is good evidence, and good names, on both sides. In many cases, the preacher is just plain wrong. (If I might say what I have said many times before: If you don’t actually know Greek or Hebrew don’t base your sermon on making claims about how verses should be translated.)

But having used the phrase “just plain wrong” regarding a translation, you now know that I think a translation can be wrong. Frequently, however, the just plain wrong translation is actually an alternative with substantial support.

Being subjective about that which is subjective, such as people’s preferences or how people understand something, is just realistic. Trying to pretend objectivity when the topic is subjective just results in silliness. Or it could result in domination of others, as in the claim that everyone “ought” to use a particular Bible version, be that the KJV, ESV, or any other personal choice.

Literature is even more subjective. I loathe lists of books that I really must read in order to be truly literate or truly educated. In general, I’ve read quite a lot of the names on them, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. The most interesting thing about those lists is the good books that aren’t on them. That’s sort of like the things that aren’t conveyed by the favorite translation of the folks who like to advocate just one style.

Want my subjective advice? Read stuff from different lists. Use different lists. Read Bible books that aren’t in your personal or your church’s canon. Use the literature lists to find more stuff that interests you. And if you’re like me, and can’t stand certain pieces of “great” literature read something else.

It’s fun.


Psalm 50:3 in The Message

Psalm 50:3 in The Message

One of my criticisms of The Message is that it tends to blunt the force of many scriptures, making them more palatable than they are.  Now don’t get the idea that I’m a critic of The Message in general.  In fact, I think it makes a great contribution to the literature available for rapid reading and overview.  Many of its expressions are quite beautiful.

As one might expect, some of those are beautiful–and inaccurate.

Psalm 50:3 is one such case.  Here it is from The Message:

Our God makes his entrance, he’s not shy in his coming. Starbursts of fireworks precede him.

That’s nice, cool, and contemporary.  But is it accurate?  In this case, I think, far from it.  I could debate whether “not being shy” adequatey expresses what the Psalmist means when he says God will not be silent.  But that would be a longer post.

Let’s just compare to the NRSV:

Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.

My question is whether “starbursts of fireworks” adequately conveys the “devouring fire” thing.  I don’t think it does.  The idea of fireworks today conveys celebration, joy, excitement, and beauty.  In this case, I think the fire says something both about God’s power and about what he is going to do with it.

I think this one could be translated in contemporary language but more accurately.  Perhaps it would be less beautiful, but more accurate.

Take the CEV for example:

Our God approaches, but not silently; a flaming fire comes first, and a storm surrounds him.

It lacks some of the zing, but it’s clear and natural contemporary English.  And it’s fairly accurate.

Translation, Exposition, and Communication

Translation, Exposition, and Communication

Yes! I have found another pretentious title for a relatively simple post!

I’ve been following the discussion around the blogosphere about literary translation, which has involved any number of blogs. I’ve been too busy to write about it. I was about to start last night, and then Doug at Metacatholic said part of what I wanted to say, and I waited until this morning to put it all together a bit more.

In working with secular literature, and even with much religious or spiritual literature, there are many ways in which a work can be transformed to reach a particular audience. One of the methods I’ve been playing around with is simply writing a very short fictional piece that tries to teach the same lesson (example here). The point here is not to produce professional fiction or for the teacher to produce a “better” story, but rather for students to study the story by changing its form. I would ask students to tell a story from their own lives or to create a fictional one to teach the lesson. In studying Bible stories I also use the technique of having students tell the story from someone else’s point of view (see the section toward the end on Ahab’s Viewpoint).

In secular literature we can have a book re-presented as a condensed book, a movie, a play, a children’s edition, illustrated edition, modernized (for an older work), and so forth. In each presentation, there are many choices made in terms of what of the original work will be presented again and what will be left out. Any time one changes the presentation, one loses something, and one may also gain something. The person who alters the form may well instill some additional meaning into the work that was not there before.

But in Bible translation it seems to me that we tend to operate in fear of doing it the wrong way. Now don’t get me wrong here. I have very strong preferences in terms of Bible translation. I’m an advocate of dynamic equivalence, and of using ordinary, natural expressions in the target language. That is what I want most in a translation. If you think about it, and then realize that the most common thing I’m doing with a Bible translation is using it in a teaching context, you will realize that my preference of translation and my purpose tend to line up. One must add that I do not pretend to teach my classes Greek or Hebrew (unless that’s the subject!) and thus I am uninterested in a presentation of the forms of the source language.

Nonetheless, as I talk about translations, I tend very strongly to speak in terms of lines of division. There are formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence, and never shall the twain meet. Now I actually believe there is a continuum (illustrated here), but that continuum easily gets lost in discussion.

Let’s take [tag]The Message[/tag] for example. The key question people ask me, and the one I’m likely to bring up if they don’t, is whether this version is really a translation or not, and whether it is “good to use.” I can then analyze the language, and how close it is to the source, and in general I must admit that The Message doesn’t seem to me to reflect the original very accurately in many cases.

But let’s shift context. Would I say the same thing about [tag]Eugene Peterson[/tag]’s teaching or his exposition in other material that he has written? There’s a bright line there that we may not always acknowledge. If he’s expounding, it’s OK. If he’s translating, well, not so much. What we are generally looking for is a solid line that divides working with the original languages from translation, and then working with a translation from someone’s exposition.

But is such a line realistic? Let’s compare my reading of Hebrew, for example, to that of a Rabbi who has spent his entire life working strictly with the Hebrew text. Alternatively we could compare my reading to someone who has spent his entire life studying comparative ancient near eastern languages, which is closer to my own study. Since I went from that study at the MA level to teaching Bible at the popular level, I have spent a great deal less time in the details. I would expect there to be points that either of those experts would see in the text that I would easily miss. When I read their expositions, I see this in action.

Let me belabor the point a bit before I build on it. I had read Leviticus through in Hebrew several times on my own, and done so in connection with Nahum Sarna’s JPS commentary, for example, but then I picked up Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s three volume Anchor Bible set. I claim to study from the original languages, and I do–in a sense. But not like that!

On the other hand I regularly encounter preachers who say that they prepare their sermons from the original languages, and yet can barely work through the material word by word. Now don’t take this as criticism. I congratulate them for using all the tools at their disposal, but their specialty and their calling doesn’t allow them to become experts in everything.

Hopefully that portrayal will do to show three levels of reading of the source texts–the expert in the texts, the person with facility in the language yet who does not professionally research on linguistic issues, and the pastor/teacher who knows some of the language. Anyone with experience could fill in the blanks either direction.

We could similarly work our way through a continuum of levels of study with various English translations, based on how accurately the text conveys the maximum possible content of the source text. Somewhere in there we should fit someone who studies from multiple English versions.

Finally, if we keep looking, we’ll find those persons who really don’t learn directly from the text or a translation at all, but rather learn the Bible in their community through exposition. There is a contempt in conservative Christianity for such people, but there are many who do know their Bibles quite well simply because they are regularly in the church when the scriptures are read and expounded, or they get similar knowledge from reading. This kind of thing makes folks like me nervous, because there are plenty of written materials that I believe distort the meaning.

Now note that the continuum I have presented is based solely on comprehending the intended message of the text. If I were to abandon that particular question, I might ask instead what methods of study and exposition result in the greater absorption of the spirit of the text by the students. That would result in quite a different list.

I could again shift views and try to build a continuum based on what produces a community sense of worship in reading scripture. This is a tremendously neglected area in many protestant churches. The information content is the sole criterion. The notion of the scripture reading as a vehicle for community worship is rarely considered. I can evoke cries of dismay when I suggest that respect for the scriptures might well be enhanced by reading all four lectionary texts on a Sunday. There seems to be a sense that if we don’t talk about it, if there is no sermon that builds directly on all those texts, there is no point in reading them. That comes from the idea that only knowledge is important.

When reading scripture for worship, the literary quality of the text becomes more important, and especially the sound of the text when read aloud. Out of modern versions I like the sound of the [tag]New Jerusalem Bible[/tag] or the [tag]Revised English Bible[/tag] in public reading, but I know a number of people who would still go for the [tag]KJV[/tag] solely for its literary beauty. Now I don’t happen to like the KJV all that well myself, but I believe that literary taste has only a small objective portion and a very large subjective portion (a few notes on this here).

If I were to work solely from my own tastes, I would suggest trying to match the literary quality of the original in translation. If so, [tag]Hebrews[/tag] should be harder to read, even when you know all the vocabulary words, than is [tag]1 John[/tag]. But of course it should not merely be harder to read; that’s just a product of someone not steeped in the language and rhetorical techniques reading a rather sophisticated text. The translation would need to be a literary masterpiece in English. My question would be this: Can you do that without reorganizing the material? In order to present the message of Hebrews as perhaps a masterful short theological essay, would we not need to take liberties with the structure of the book? After all, few English readers even notice the various literary features.

What I’m suggesting here is that none of these issues are binary issues, and that there are very few absolutely right and wrong answers. I use the slogan “the best Bible version is one your read.” My point is that different people will be comfortable reading, and will understand different Bible versions. There will always be a compromise on what is conveyed and what is filtered out by the translation choices. That is simply a feature of translating, transforming, or expounding a message.

One last note for those working on single translations into languages that are likely to have only one. There I can think of no better goal than “clear, accurate, and natural.” It’s very easy to set goals that are out of range of human thinking. In English, where so much effort is expended, we have the luxury of using multiple version and thousands of books of exposition to get the message across. In languages much less privileged–or abused–that doesn’t exist. There I would have to say that having something clear, accurate, and natural would come before anything else.

I sense that understanding in Peter Kirk’s post “Literary Translation” and Obfuscation, which I think brings up a number of points. Look at that post from the perspective of a Bible translator who is not adding yet another English translation to the literature.

Let me note the following from John Hobbins: Is Literary Translation Possible and If a text is literary, its dynamic equivalent in translation must also be literary From the second I take the following:

But that means that dynamic equivalent translations like the Good News Bible and the Contemporary English Version are improperly done. For vast swathes of the Old Testament, the translation they offer is not literary enough.

My point would simply be that I don’t accept the phrase “improperly done.” They are done according to the goals of their translators. The proposed “literary” translation would not accomplish that goal. Let me belabor the point some more. I love reading the [tag]REB[/tag]. It sits open on the reading stand by my computer because I love to consult it. I love to read it aloud. But I cannot use it in teaching, because I end up with too little understanding of the text. What to me is literary beauty obscures the meaning for them.

For my goals in teaching, the REB is “improperly done.” But for my goals in reading and study, it is quite “properly done.”

Isaiah 64:6 – Menstrual Cloth

Isaiah 64:6 – Menstrual Cloth

I was planning to leave my comparisons with just Isaiah 63, as I believe that continued comparison charts will largely show the same thing. I’m still reading the translations side by side, and if something seems different I will bring it up.

But today in reading Isaiah 64 in several translations I came across Isaiah 64:6 (5 in Hebrew) in which the phrase “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (KJV) occurs. Now having just read this in Hebrew I was reminded that the literal translation of this is “menstrual cloths” or something similar. These cloths would be unclean, as was the woman in her menstrual period. One extended discussion of the issue of uncleanness can be found in Leviticus 15:19-33.

In the passage, there is clearly meaning in the fact that these are not merely dirty pieces of cloth. For example, had someone washed their hands and dried them on these cloths after digging ditches all day, by modern standards we might call them dirty. If I repair the car and then wipe the grease on a rag, we would escalate that to filthy rag. But the menstrual cloth implied ritual impurity, however odd that might seem to us today.

So having read the TNIV translation:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. — Isaiah 64:6 (TNIV)

Now this doesn’t disturb me much. In the course of the verse they have gotten in the words “unclean” and “filthy” and I would assume that the TNIV translators, along with all the modern versions I checked (quite a number), simply don’t think that “menstrual cloth” is going to be meaningful to modern translators.

But when I turn to a translation that prides itself on word for word renderings, that “seeks as far as possible to catpure the precise wording of the original text” (ESV Preface), I thought perhaps things would be different. But here the desire for literal translation escaped the ESV translators:

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. — Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)

Now I definitely think “polluted” is better than “filthy” in the context. But we have still replaced one metaphor in Hebrew with a completely different English expression. The Message carries this the furthest, using “grease-stained rags,” which does not reflect the basic idea all that well, but has the advantage of conjuring an immediate image in English.

Though I found only one modern version, the Complete Jewish Bible, that uses any word referring to menstrual cloths (menstrual rags), I did find that ancient translators used that. The LXX, Vulgate, and the Peshitta, all translate with something that includes the original literal meaning in its semantic range. Interestingly enough, the Isaiah Targum, according to the text I have available, uses an even better euphemism than any of the English versions, “cast off garment” or I might prefer the translation “garment thrown far away” (Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).

So is there an element of meaning in the actual Biblical wording here or not? Is it possible to convey that meaning accurately in a literal translation? Such a literal translation does not appear common in modern translations.