Do an Abundance of English Translations make the need for knowledge of the biblical languages unnecessary?

One of my pleasures as a faculty member at BCSA is working with my friend, Chris Fresch (of Greek Verb Fame). Chris and I frequently discuss the biblical languages. Most of the time our discussion are on matters of exegesis that the biblical languages highlight. And at times we lament that many pastors and students believe (or are being told) that knowledge of the biblical languages is unnecessary for faithful pastoral ministry and therefore do not pursue to learn them.

I don’t think that a working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are absolutely necessary for faithful ministry, or that it is the only skill needed for Christian ministry. To believe that would be naive of the heavy burden of pastoral ministry. But I’m concerned by the number of pastors and students who determine them unnecessary and seek to find ways to avoid them in theological college. 

One excuse for not valuing the languages in ministry is because we possess an abundance of English translations of the Scriptures. But is it true that an abundance of English translations mean that the need for learning the languages are obsolete? Dennis Johnson from Westminster California argues that the abundance of English translations actually makes the mastery of the biblical languages more necessary. He writes:

“The abundance of English translations of the Bible available to our churches may appear to make knowledge of the original languages less necessary. Actually, they make it more essential. I have participated in home Bible studies in which we had around the circle the Living Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Versions, and others. At many points, naturally we had different wording; and at certain points our versions came up with significant variations in meaning! What do we do? Vote? Happily, we had somebody there who could look at the original, suggest why the versions diverged, and tell the rest why one translation was more accurate than the other. God’s people need the confidence that their own shepherds can guide them through the labyrinth of modern translations.”1

I think we all can relate to Johnson’s experience. The abundance of translations with different text-critical decisions and different translational goals can create quite the confusion for a group. The answer isn’t to look toward another translation, but the need for someone the capacity to explain why translations diverged and explain why one translation was better over another. This sort of knowledge and explanation is more than the ability to look up parsing information and glosses in a software program like Accordance or Logos. It requires someone who has laboured over the Scriptures in order to gain a deep knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Let us continue to do the hard work because we love and treasure the Scriptures in order to serve God’s church. 

  1. Johnson, Dennis “The Perils of Pastors without the Biblical Languages” in Presbyterian Journal, September 1986 

Receivers of the Word

 

What is crucial is that we recognize that we do not define the situation into which God is allowed to speak, and we do not set limits on what God is allowed to say. Instead, we come to realize our true situation only as we actually read the Scriptures and believe the Word of God. We are hearers, which places us in a subordinate position ready to receive what is given as gift.

Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2018, pp. 34–35.

Hendrikus Berkhof on the Old Testament as a Source of Christian Theology

By recognizing this book as  a source of revelation, the Christian church professes its belief that God pursues a unique course through history, and that the appearance of Jesus Christ was not an isolated epiphany but a decisive phase on a way which had begun ages ago, a way which took the shape of an electing, guiding, judging, and saving concern with one special people” (p. 221)

Hendrikus Berkhof. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1979.

Qohelet’s Advice on How Not to Hate Your Work as an Old Testament Scholar

Eric Ortlund:

As a seminary professor with an incurably bookish bent, I personally find it deeply liberating to disconnect the value of my teaching and writing from visible results. It is a relief to me to admit that I cannot produce the results I want in my students; that is God’s work. With regard to publishing, it has been my observation that paradigms in OT studies last around 50 years; articles published in the 1960s and 1970s are already beginning to look like antiques. Soon my work will be an antique as well. If I set my hopes on making a visible impact on the state of professional biblical studies, I may very well become so frustrated that I start to hate the work. This is true even if I succeed, for (if I am honest) I will have to admit that my influence will fade quickly. Qohelet liberates me from that despair to enjoy each day of teaching, simply and as nothing else than a gift. And God’s word becomes rich and sharp in a way it never would if my only goal were to be an influential professional scholar.>

Ortlund, Eric. “Pastoral Pensees: Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes” Themelios 39.2

Writing Slow in Order to Think Deep

When I tell people that I prefer to write by hand rather than type on a screen, they typically look at me like I’m a dinosaur. But I protest that I prefer to write by hand because it allows my mind and hand to work at the same speed since I can type faster than I think. 1 When I type, my mind is always trying to catch up rather than setting the agenda. With my caveman ways in mind, I was delighted to read Claudia Dreifus’s interview with the esteemed journalist, Robert Caro’s own practice of drafting his books by hand.

Is it true that you write your books by hand?

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.

I prefer to write by hand because I express myself better when my mind and hand are synchronized. Caro’s purpose for handwriting is a different one. He can write very quickly as he attests, but he purposefully slows down his writing in order to provide the space he needs to engage his subject deeply. Although, I have preferred drafting by hand because it feels more natural for me, it is true that handwriting allows me think more deeply about my subject.

Of course, some will probably scoff at the idea of writing by hand and all the time that is lost by re-writing by hand and then transcribing to screen. But I think Caro is correct that the practice of writing by hand does create the space to engage a subject in a more meaningful way. Caro’s interview adds another reason to why I think writing by hand is a skill that I plan to continue to use. 2

  1. Tony Reinke has also noted C.S. Lewis’s preference to writing with nib pen rather than fountain pen or a typewrite for this same reason.
  2. And yes, I wrote this post by hand before transcribing it.

The Grammar of Messianism

I want to extend my congrats to my friend, Matt Novenson’s new book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford University Press, 2017). Matt is a Senior Lecturer at New College, University of Edinburgh and is a well respected Pauline and Christian Origins scholar. But more importantly (to me at least), he’s a great human being. If you are considering doing a Ph.D in Pauline Studies or Christian Origins, Matt needs to be at the top of your list for potential supervisors.

For the release of the book, Matt gave two interviews (here and here) at the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (New College) blog that gives in depth descriptions about the project.

And then finally here is a description of The Grammar of Messianism, from the OUP site:

Messianism is one of the great themes in intellectual history. But for precisely this reason, because it has done so much important ideological work for the people who have written about it, the historical roots of the discourse itself have been obscured from view. What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianismbecame a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson gives a revisionist account of messianism in antiquity. He shows that, for the ancient Jews and Christians who used the term, a messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking. It was a scriptural figure of speech, one among numerous others, useful for thinking kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations beside. The early Christians famously seized upon the title “messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) for their founding hero and thus molded the sense of the term in certain ways, but, Novenson shows, this is nothing other than what all ancient messiah texts do, each in its own way. If we hope to understand the ancient texts about messiahs (from Deutero-Isaiah to the Parables of Enoch, from the Qumran Community Rule to the Gospel of John, from the Pseudo-Clementines to Sefer Zerubbabel), then we must learn to think in terms not of a world-historical idea but of a language game, of so many creative reuses of an archaic Israelite idiom. In The Grammar of Messianism, Novenson demonstrates thepossibility and the benefit of thinking of messianism in this way.

Again, congratulations on the release of the book, Matt.

Typology

Southern Seminary recently came out with their latest issue of their journal, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and for this issue all of the essays are centred around typology. I think one of the strengths of SBJT is that the essays typically have a particular focus or a uniting theme. It is a bonus to see my friend Matt Emerson as one of the co-contributors in his and Peter Link’s essay “Searching for the Second Adam: Typological Connections between Adam, Joseph, Mordecai, and Daniel.” With five girls, I don’t know how he does it.

With an issue like typology, there is much disagreement. Stephen Wellum’s opening editorial essay helpfully notes that Christians do read the Scriptures typologically, but that they disagree about how it should be done. Not every essay in the journal approaches a typological reading in the same way, but Wellum tries to describe the broad contours in which the contributors work.

First, Wellum defines typology as “the study of the relationship between Old Testament revealed truths of persons, events, institutions which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure their intensified ‘anti-typical’ fulfilment in Christ and his people” (p. 6). And second, he argues that typology is rooted in history and text, prophetic and predictive, escalates, and progresses covenantally.

Wellum’s description raises a question for me on whether there is a difference between the typological reading that Wellum proposes and what I call narrative patterning, where an author or authors pattern narrative plots and characters after previous plots and characters as a way to provide implicit commentary. Because they seem very similar. For example, Adonijah’s attempt at assuming the throne during David’s waning years is explicitly shaped after Absalom’s attempt at taking the throne from David (cf. 1 Kgs 1:5–6, 9 with 2 Sam 14:25; 15:1; 17:17). It is difficult to imagine this as being prophetic or escalating. It seems to be a way to implicitly comment on Adonijah’s actions.

So is typology then an explicitly Christological reading? And therefore, a kind of a narrative patterning that is Christological in focus but also must be understood as prophetic and predictive, escalate, and progress covenantally?

A Book Review on Eugene Merrill’s 1–2 Chronicles Commentary

I’m a bit late in posting this (actually very late). But I thought some might be interested in reading my recent book review of Eugene Merrill’s commentary on 1–2 Chronicles that was published in the latest Themelios journal. Especially helpful are discussions on three theological themes in a redemptive-historical framework that are central to the Chronicler’s theology and purpose: David’s historical and eschatological reign, the renewal of an everlasting covenant, and the restored temple as a symbol of a renewed people (pp. 57–68).

Merrill’s work has been a great benefit to students of the Old Testament for many years. And his work on Chronicles can help remedy one of the most neglected books in the Bible.

You can read my full review here.

A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an Early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

If you were a Greek preposition, which one would you be?

Here is announcement that on 30 June-1 July 2017, Tyndale House in Cambridge is hosting a workshop on Greek prepositions. This workshop follows the highly successful conference on the Greek verb which resulted in an impressive volume from Lexham Press. The workshop will in particular be drawing from the resources of cognitive linguistic approaches to lexicography. There is a host of great presenters from within biblical studies and general linguistics. So if you’re interested in more information check out my friend Will Ross’s announcement or if you need no other convincing sign up here.

Presenters include:

Dirk Geeraerts
Linguistics, University of Leuven

Richard A. Rhodes
Linguistics, U.C. Berkeley

Jonathan A. Pennington
New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Patrick James
Classics, University of Cambridge

Steven Runge
Logos Bible Software

Randall Buth
Biblical Language Center