Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Ethics of grace: the key Christian USP?

When I think about my experience of what is uniquely special to me about my Christian faith, the one thing I'd like to incarnate more and see multiplied around me, I think it might be best described as grace. That's not to say that I think that grace might trump love, but I do also happen to agree with some skeptics who consider love to run the risk of being so broad, multidimensional and cultural that it can and does leave the communicative task profoundly unfinished.  Grace less so. It too might well need some clarification, but not so much as to sideline the 100 or so competing ideas of what "love" might mean in a given context.

The best definition I can come up with is that it's like goodness on steroids! A window of hopeful confidence on a future potential good despite an unsure or even absurd human context.

The next morning I had time to read something for guidance in my reflection and installed the 2019 Bonne Semance app. 6 March was a simple testimony resting on Romans 10:9 if you believe God raised Jesus back to life and acknowledge him (Jesus) as Lord, then you'll be saved.

At first I was like, how can I fit this into my new progressive grid? Then it dawned on me. Jesus is the symbol of this raw Goodness of God, not because God is a savage endorsing child sacrifice, but because there is an historic exemplar of the group-imagined kindness of God to us. "Paying the price for us" is thus super powerful if understood through the lens of Grace. Any human can look at the great act of grace to us as humanity's new option for goodness that is not content to mete out justice and rights alone. Someone believes in me, my goodness, my inherent value, my own potential not just to live better but to love and restore as I was "designed" to do. The Christian story of Jesus gives us a powerful narrative to hang all this on and a loving gaze through which to view this exciting new twist of Goodness-perception in our species' history.

Friday, 1 March 2019

First-century Christians not responsible for solving the Tetragrammaton conundrum with kyrios

Some scholars have argued for a “later” Christian convention on naming the Tetragrammaton (Yahweh) kyrios, on the basis of a lack of extant Jewish manuscripts from the period. Unfortunately, not only is this presupposition terribly vague, but it fails to account for a) the general scarcity of pre-Christian LXX manuscripts b) the fact that this convention would have had to have been established by a very small and early pre-Pauline Jewish-Christian community for Paul to use it without any worry from 1 Corinthians onward (approx. 53 AD) contra the pattern received by Paul from his great Jewish rabbi Gamaliel, c) this community undertaking the vast project of revising the entire Septuagint with their important update to the perennial Tetragrammaton pronunciation problem, and d) this revision confusingly mimicking evidence of a more piecemeal translation process spanning many decades.

This fourfold argument is, in my view, a slam-dunk for a pre-Christian solution to the Jewish Tetragrammaton issue. I will be defending in particular this fourth point in the fourth chapter of my upcoming book Bye-Bye Lord via the Septuagint research I am presenting there. It should push Septuagint scholars instead to ask what the few desert community Greco-Jewish LXX fragments mean when they deviate from kyrios, rather than assuming that they represent the Bible the apostle Paul read and cited.

A post-Christian era kyrios innovation just does not make any sense of the data.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

God is Good

Probably the oldest song I can remember singing in the evangelical church I grew up in is "God Is Good". The chorus continues with further proclamation: "I sing and shout", "we celebrate", "we know it's true": every time interspersed with, God is good.

The purpose of today's post is to propose a new model for belief in God in order to diminish religious mistrust and foster a broader understanding of faith.

My daughter used to claim that almost any meat was "chicken". Sometimes she was correct, it really was chicken, and sometimes it was something else, maybe pork. Correct or incorrect, right? For Fiona, she was working with the set of categories at her disposal, which featured different labels to most of us. She thus could be said to be identifying each piece of "chicken-like" substance "correctly". When provided new categories, she revised her definitions. Today those meat categories are rapidly coming into line with where most of us are at.

"God" is an interesting one though. The word relates to a being or beings that no-one can usually see. Despite the great coming of the incarnated Word in Jesus Christ, first century Christians still affirmed with conviction that God is invisible and immortal. My translation of 1 Timothy 6:16 reads as adapted from the NIV:

To the only one who is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see - to him be honor and might forever. Amen.

Jesus was astonishingly the physical way in which that perfection would be glimpsed - eventually leading to an extraordinary idea of him joining the father in his divine coeternal status, despite some fairly clear distinctions made in earlier times. The point, however, is twofold. Firstly, that we humans desire in earnest to gaze upon the perfectly good. Our souls drink it up. That is what Jesus enabled (see Colossians 1:15). Secondly, to return to that classic hymn, God is Good. God defines goodness. It's actually a bit like saying: goodness is goodness. It's reflected in other mystical statements like God is Love. For Christians, Jews and Muslims he necessarily defines that which is perfect.

This might sound unacceptably vague or ambiguous, but actually, there is a beautiful simplicity on offer here to which we can all have access and from which I feel sure we can all benefit. If in fact God is goodness, defining goodness and love itself, then there can literally be no squabbles about his goodness, any more than we could complain that a sandwich is not a sandwich.

The dividing line is not whether God is good or not - almost everyone has a category for "good" and almost everyone knows instinctively that that perfect measure lies outside of themselves.

Where Christianity might be said to differ from Buddhism or Humanism, for instance, might be the notion that perfect goodness should be personified (as opposed to could be personified). I don't know Buddhist thought well enough to assert this for sure, but I assume that there is healthy accommodation for the personification of Goodness, whom we might refer to as "God". Of course, Christian doctrine actually muddies the water a little in staking the claim that perfect goodness is the Godhead, but not personified as only one person, since Father, Son and Holy Spirit each are persons possessing and personifying the divine Goodness. 

Indeed, it seems to me like there is a lot of common ground here between the current human perspectives. Here is another logical step for humanity: many people would like to benefit from greater Goodness in their life, even though they don't come close to defining it or personifying it. The ancient way we have interacted for millennia to invoke such Goodness is through meditative prayer and spiritual request. Doing so collectively enhances a sense of connection, community and belonging.

What I find so appealing in this realisation of the natural appeal to pray more is that there is a natural "fit" between our human needs for 1) goodness and 2) community. 

There is a third human need concerned by the recognition of a universal Good. We need to experience gratitude. Research shows not only that regular meditation provides powerful and sustained improvement to our brain states but also that it develops our brain structures, developing our physiological capacity to be compassionate. That level of benefit runs so deep we can describe it as a need to be grateful. What religious belief provides is something precious: someone to be grateful *toward*. However, I want to be really, really careful here not to be heard to say that humans need to thank a personified Goodness (a.k.a. God) in order to develop neurologically. That's clearly false since many traditions achieve this effect simply by practising a sense of gratitude and expressing it frequently around others. What I am saying however is that the personified/personal way is a great way to tick three boxes in a way we can agree is beneficial:

Enhancing our own goodness and love
Enhancing our sense of community
Enhancing and channelling our gratitude

God really is Good, unfalsifiably so. *He* defines it. In the next post, let's think more about the next steps of relating to God: how this appeal to his perfection requires we keep our requests broad and sensitive to what our senses are telling us. Of course, to do this we will necessarily be opening the ugly can of worms that is suffering.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

When 'Lord' might be OK: reading Adonai through NT glasses

WHILE I HAVE been seeking to establish a workable and scalable methodology for translating Kyrios (Greek for 'Lord') in the New Testament, I have increasingly wondered where some Lordship language might be allowed to be preserved.

I am critical of some of the shortcomings of the Eugene Nida-influenced dichotomy since it fails to account for original register and usage.

However, if we wanted to say replicate an experience of relating say 600 year-old sacred texts, such as the first century Jews were, then a scattering of understandable-yet-historical language might well be beneficial to communicate that experience. 600 years is the period separating those Jews from some super-significant events in their people's history, most notably their exile. 600 years is also the period separating us from the times in which 'Lord' was selected by Wycliffe and others as a suitable medieval title for translating Kyrios. That's an interesting parallel I'm not sure I've heard before and creates an interesting possibility.

Given the overarching desire to make the Word of God both holy and meaningful to a contemporary audience, primary titles for God and Yahweh should fulfil both criteria. However, secondary titles could be candidates for the aforementioned idea of communicating historical depth.

On these grounds, I find the idea of translating Adonai (when not occurring alongside other divine names or titles) by 'Lord' quite feasible. Once again I find myself endorsing Peterson's translation. Here is an important passage of Psalms, Ps 97:5, which reads in the NASB :

The mountains melted like wax at the presence of the Lord

At the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.

(Here the NASB reflects an identical reading between the two lines as translated into the Greek Septuagint: 
. . .ἀπὸ προσώπου κυρίου
    ἀπὸ προσώπου κυρίου . . . !

The Message communicates my above concerns and 'Lord' opportunity best, however:
'The mountains take one look at God And melt, melt like wax before earth’s Lord.'

Psalm 97:5
'The mountains take one look at God And melt, melt like wax before earth’s Lord.'

Psalm 97:5
'The mountains take one look at God And melt, melt like wax before earth’s Lord.'

Psalm 97:5
The mountains take one look at GOD
And melt, melt like wax before earth's Lord.

As Christians, we are sometimes exhorted to read the OT through NT glasses. Maintaining some scope for 'Lord' language when translating Adonai might align quite well with this objective.

Monday, 21 January 2019

How old is "Seigneur" in French?

Le Seigneur a quel âge?

This is an interesting question I was destined to stumble over at some point. I arrived at it following my decision to enlargen my quest for a publisher to the French-speaking market.

End November 2018, I already needed to know the history of "Lord" in English and shared my findings on the blog hereWhen did this "Lord" business begin?

I concluded that there was a shift at some point between the early 1000s and the late 1300s from Drihten to Lord in English.

There are some very old translations into French, the most famous and allegedly initial large-scale version was conducted by Guyard des Moulins in 1297. That is a hundred years before Wycliffe (used Lord). I don't know if the beautiful presentation of des Moulin's work is thanks to him or a scribe working under him, but it's well worth a look.

Guyard des Moulins uses Seigneur. Here's a passage I located in the first chapter of Luke (which you can view online in full here):

In short, both Lord and Seigneur really do date back to the medieval times and demonstrate the sticking power of these sacred terms once translated, even in the face of contemporary redundancy.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Lord's entrenchment in summary (historical factors)

OUR PREVIOUS STUDY on the historical factors impacting Lord's entrenchment was a little in-depth. Here then are a few short words in summary:

The word we frequently translate by ‘Lord’ came to our Medieval translators drenched in sanctity, via prohibitions about the Name from the texts themselves, centuries of faithful copying and the special sanctifying shorthand of nomina sacra. Subsequent history indicates that once established, the translated terms would be slow or even impossible to evolve.

In my next post, we will examine the more contemporary factors that anchor 'Lord' into some of the most modern and dynamic Bible translations of our times.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

The texts as holy and blinding success stories (historical factors): Lord's Resilience Part 1

The aim of this post is to identify three historical factors that may have influenced why such a central vocable as ‘Lord’ has shown such resilience in modern bible translation, ranging from the original biblical texts themselves, to the faithful art of sacred scripture copying and to the introduction of a specific status of ‘Kyrios’ via a special shorthand. These factors provide some explanatory power as to why ‘Lord’ may have slipped off the radar of many translation committees, before we tackle some more contemporary reasons in the next post.

It began with holiness

Thus far we have established that there seems to be a discrepancy between the NIV’s general translation policy, NIV heavy reliance on ‘Lord’ and ‘Lord’s current status in contemporary English. If my hypothesis is correct, that ‘Lord’ is outstaying its welcome, we then need to think about the factors and barriers affecting why some religiously significant words like ‘Lord’ might sometimes survive with such robustness in spite of the demands of dynamic translation. I believe it has something to do with sanctity. Think about it: if something is perceived by a person or a community as holy, then there is a responsibility to respect, to uphold, to commemorate and to preserve. Examples of this connection abound. Take the Islamic perception of the Koran for instance – every Arabic word is considered divine, literal God-utterances. Some of the complicated grammar in classical Arabic is even defined by it. You can’t touch it; you can’t change it. In Christianity, the idea of holy preservation is also very strong. In the wake of the reformation, the Catholic Church was under pressure to re-establish its continuity with (and preservation of) the past. Simon Ditchfield states it perfectly:

Roman Catholics were […] forced to take issue with the Reformers […] using the weapon of history that had been unsheathed by the Protestants […] The magisterial Catholic reply – the Annnales Ecclesiastici (1588-1607) of Cesare Baronio – [were organized into] 14,0000 columns of text in support of a two-word thesis: semper eadem – ever the same; that is to say, to demonstrate the continuity the Roman Church had always professed with its apostolic origins.”[1]

I believe, we can identify three significant historical factors that have contributed to this holy resilience to ‘Lord’s reassessment:
  • 1       the original texts themselves are self-sanctifying,
  • 2       for many centuries, copyists were at pains to copy the texts faithfully,
  • 3      introduction of powerful symbolic shorthand for extra sanctification of “Lord”,

I summarise these factors as “the texts as holy and blinding success stories” – they each contribute to our inability to see the painful and widening gap between contemporary mainstream and religious discourse. Let’s look briefly at how each one has functioned to see how that summary might be considered adequate (or not) in helping us understand why ‘Lord’ is outstaying its welcome.

1.      A deep regard for the texts’ sanctity is built in

Ever since the holy texts were first read and copied, their profound sanctity was explicitly anchored by the texts themselves and by the communities endorsing them, e.g. Deuteronomy 12:32, Revelation 22:18-19. The Revelation passage is packed full of terrible warning against manuscript meddling:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.   (NIV)

These texts are of course the Bible; the endorsing community became the Church who perceive it as the very inspired Word of God. Throughout history, the Christian community has been committed to the implementation, preservation and translation of these sacred Scriptures ever since. Each time, once established in any language, the community will likely not take any modification to any of the translated vocabulary lightly due to its association with being the sacred Word of God.

2.      Generally high standards of manual copying

Much has been made by some textual critics in recent times of potentially ‘wild’ copying practices in the first era of Christian copyist activity – how can we presume that this imputed holiness has always been true? The modern bible translator wants to be faithful to an original text – but did not all this profuse copying mean that speaking of “the original text” is meaningless if there were so many changes each time a manuscript was manually copied? Surely the sheer abundance of human errors would lead to an unacceptable level of trustworthiness of any critical text we want to call definitive.

Actually, despite the profusion of the burgeoning Christian demand for access to their holy texts throughout the Christian manuscript era (approx. 100-1500 A.D.) and the myriad of slight changes we see between each, we see in the thousands of extant manuscripts an extraordinary level of overall consistency. This is a witness to the steady motivation of Jewish and Christian scribes along with their commissioning authorities to remain faithful to God’s Holy Word despite natural tendencies to human error. Indeed, even for the staunchest critics acknowledge (e.g. Bart Ehrman), errors are 99% inconsequential and even traceable thanks to this mass of data the surviving manuscripts give us.

In the wake of a crumbling and decentralising Roman Empire, disagreements between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity, and the continuing expansion of the church cross-culturally, translations as well as copies were needed and used in liturgy. The point here is that once translated, further translations from the Greek were still possible but always with a view to preserving the original (sacred) meaning contained in the Greek – this could be the only conceivable reason for modifying the text in the target language.

Our first two factors affect the strong preservation of Scripture generally. As we now transition to ‘Lord’ specifically, we can note an astonishing reality: to an even greater degree, ‘Lord’ is virtually never revised in the target language. Every time the Greek Kyrios appears in a new translation and is truly adopted in the target language, it sticks, as the faithful copying hands continued their much needed work.

This phenomenon of copyist faithfulness to both the text generally and to Kyrios specifically continues and even accelerates post-reformation as Biblical translation resumes in earnest in the wake of the Reformation.

3.     Introduction of powerful symbolic shorthand for extra sanctification of “Lord”

Rewinding the clock back to the first centuries of the Christian era, there must have been two clear demands for faithful copies of the same sacred texts: Jewish[2] and Christian, and they contain a key as to why ‘Lord’ is so fundamentally precious. Prior to the steady separation of these two faiths in and around the second century, Judaism handed on to Christianity the general sanctity of the texts and the name in Greek of the central divine character known as “Kyrios” – God himself – both in a full format and an ultra-sanctified abbreviated format. Why all this hard work to please God? The Jews were desperate to regain control of the land He had promised them.

At the very heart of this effort, saying and writing God’s name for Jews especially had become a seriously tricky business. We know at times specific vowel alterations were used, or contractions, or certain symbolic marks or just a blank[3]. Pavlov Vasileiadis, whom I have had the privilege of consulting for this paper, states: “The subsequent use of the contracted forms of the original nomina sacra κ[ύριο]ς and θ[εό]ς within Christian manuscripts probably reflects the Jewish practice of replacing the Tetragrammaton by י[הו]ה[4]. We can then infer the likelihood that the Jewish practice of ultra-sanctification of God’s name resulted in special repackaging in Greek via a similar process of contraction, into these “nomina sacra”, meaning ‘holy names’ in Latin.

Copying and developing this holy contraction practice would have also permitted Greek-speaking Jews and Christians to make the sharp the distinction they needed between their κ[ύριο]ς and all the other lords and gods vying for attention in the pagan context. Thus, this Judaeo-Christian practice of contraction permits both sanctification and differentiation.[5]

Christianity rapidly spread and reached numbers in the millions. Mainly located in the Roman empire, it drew imperial scrutiny, persecution and finally adoption during the third and fourth centuries. There was virtually no special language to adopt as the Hebrew Scriptures had long since been translated and circulated in Greek and the New Testament had even been written in every-day Greek originally! ‘Kyrios’ was not new either – a common term, in fact, designating a wide range of authority figures, such as a slave-owner or even an emperor. What was adopted within Christian faith and practice was its distinguishing literary feature of nomina sacra, and it stuck – even across early translations and for over a thousand years.

Subsequent translations of the Bible were thus preloaded with deep and reverent significance surrounding the contracted forms (also contracted in the new languages of Latin, Coptic and so on) that would add to the resilience of the translated counterparts. Once established, the translated terms would be slow or even impossible to evolve. Apparently, in linguistic terms, that is the effect of imputed holiness on a word.

[1] Ditchfield, S. (1995) Liturgy, Sanctity and History in Tridentine Italy, Cambridge University Press. p. 6. Emphasis mine.
[2] Jewish communities, somewhat diverse but with a relatively stable population, would have continued to need fresh copies as old manuscripts wore out, as synagogue networks developed in the Roman empire and also as desert communities were established. By the time of the first century, the Jewish elite would have felt the oppressive presence of the Romans (yet another dominating power denying the Jewish people jurisdiction over the land God had promised them) and judged to be a direct consequence of the people’s inability to please God, or in other words, to be lacking in sanctity. This had various consequences on what was taught and practiced, and Jesus is well known to have opposed some of these in strong terms (e.g. see Matthew 23:1–36).
[3] We have very few surviving Jewish texts that predate the Christian era and they all appear to be of this “safer” variety that avoid the risk of the reader pronouncing the divine name of Yahweh or Kyrios. They achieve this via a selection of methods, including a simple space, four dots. Albert Pietersma, professor emeritus of Septuagint and Hellenistic Greek, is of the opinion that these surviving practices were actually later precautions, replacing within the Jewish scribal traditions the previous choice of Kyrios. The data in this paper will strongly support that part of Pietersma’s thesis, the claim that ‘Kyrios’ was in the original and earliest Greek translations.
[4] Vasileiadis, P. D. (2014) Aspects of rendering the sacred Tetragrammaton in Greek (2014), Open Theology 2014; Volume 1: 56–88, De Gruyter, Open. Note, however, despite the form of contraction Vasileiadis mentions using the first and last Greek letters of the sacred referent, alternative contractions were also possible, e.g. by using the first two Greek letters, officially dubbed “suspension”. It is this latter such as in the example given in Figure 1 above of Romans 10:13 from Codex Sinaiticus.
[5] A third advantage may have been the practicalities of speed and economy of space! Since the earliest Christian scribes would probably have been Jews themselves, they may, as Vasileiadas has shown, have borrowed from technical Jewish scribal practices to emphasise sanctity while even streamlining their copying process, saving time and paper. Not just a win-win, but a win-win-win! It is little wonder scribes later expanded the technique to other holy figures in the ensuing decades and centuries. The final list of ‘nomina sacra’ ended up considerably larger: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ/Messiah, Son, Spirit/Ghost, David, Cross/Stake, Mother, God Bearer i.e. Mother of God, Father, Israel, Saviour, Human being/Man, Jerusalem, Heaven/Heavens.