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Creating God in our own image

A Lenten reflection on the narcissism in contemporary worship

No sooner than Moses had instructed the children of Israel did they craft for themselves a golden calf to call their god. The idea itself seems preposterous as it flies against everything they had witnessed and experienced, but it reveals a prevailing problem with human nature – our desire to deify and worship our needs. The Israelites had some real needs as they faced an uncertain future and innumerable threats from both Egypt behind them, Canaan before them, and the harsh desert they found themselves in. In the midst of such dire circumstances, they had to choose between faith in a god they had not seen (except for smoke and clouds), or the fear that stands at the door of their hearts.

Understandably, their fear got the better of them and they decided that they had to have something more tangible and visceral to invest their hopes in – enter the golden calf. This was more than a particular pagan deity, it was an attempt to make God fit their expectations shaped by their pressing needs. Their need, however legitimate, was the dominant force in their religion. God was that great vending machine in the sky to which they would willingly insert whatever coins was required to ensure that their needs were met.

This same attitude seems to plague the modern church as our religious life continues to revolve around God as the meeter of our needs – be it of health or wealth, emotional or material. Like the children of Israel, our God is infinitely  malleable – shaped to meet whatever your crying need might be. If you are poor, He is the key to wealth and security. If you are lonely, He is your best friend and lover. If you are fearful, He is the perpetual affirmer of your value as a person. If you are rejected, He is the one who will always welcome you with open arms. If you are sick, He is your personal physician par excellence. God is anything and everything you need, or to be more precise, God will serve your every need.

Now, don’t get me wrong – we all have needs and God surely knows that. But a faith that revolves around a God whose primary value to us is a meeter of our needs is little more than a golden calf of sorts. It has been my observation that the church has focused greatly on God as the meeter of our needs, rather than God as the great I AM. When John Newton first penned the lyrics for “Amazing Grace”, the primary theme of the song was God’s grace in the face of our unworthiness and wretchedness. In the contemporary re-write of the song by Chris Tomlin (#14 on CCLI Top 40 of 2017), he added several verses that gave a very different take on the song. Instead of our unworthiness, the focus now became:-

MY chains are gone
I have been set free
the Lord has promised good TO ME
He will MY SHIELD AND PORTION be
God will be forever MINE

This is but an example of the narcissism that has swept through contemporary worship – a reflection of the church’s preoccupation with the meeting of our needs. Worship has shifted away from a pure focus on God as God, to a notion of God as a means for the meeting of my needs. We love God because of what He did, does, and will do for us. This is not to deny the fact that God has in fact saved us in doing for us what we could never do for ourselves on Calvary. It is to point out that we need to consider the question of how our relationship with God would be if He never did another thing for us.

Another Chris Tomlin song that’s been really popular is “Good Good Father” (#3 on CCLI Top 40 of 2017). I think that as a song, it touches many hearts because it speaks to a generation that seems starved of paternal approval and offers God as the answer to our need for fatherly acceptance. If we step back from that need, however, and look at what the song actually conveys, it’s about:-

tender whispers of love in the dead of night
You tell me you’re pleased (with me)
that I’m never alone
I’m loved by you – it’s who I am, who I am, who I am
Cause you know just what we need

Number 1 on the CCLI Top 40 charts for 2017 is currently “What A Beautiful Name” by Hillsongs. The song is ostensibly about the name of Jesus but right in the middle of the song, we find the verse that goes:-

You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now

That seems to suggest that God needed us and that was what prompted God’s salvific work. I really don’t want to get into what “brought heaven down” possibly means or try to answer “What could separate us now?” (clue: a lot). This, once again, tips the hat to the attitude that what is most important about God is what He does for us. It seems to elevate ourselves to a place of undue importance in the eyes of God, quite a different perspective from that of the Psalmist in Psa 22:6:-

But I am a worm, and no man;
A reproach of men, and despised by the people

I guess the question is, within this culture of elevated self-importance, are we as worshippers of God prepared to die to our needs and lay those aspirations at God’s discretion? Are we prepared to not be driven by our needs, and let God be God – the great I AM? Are we able to say “not my will, but yours be done”? Can we simply worship God because He is God and not because of some benefit that could result from it? In short, can we make worship not revolve around us, our needs or our feelings, and become more about God and who He is, about His glory?

Lent is the season that reminds us of self-denial, something contrary to the idea of self-fulfillment that under-girds the narcissism of much of contemporary worship (by which I don’t just mean songs of worship.) During this season, we are challenged to die to our own needs and desires and to turn our eyes onto Jesus who set the example of preferring the Father’s will over His own. This is the season to take a break from pandering to our need for emotional affirmation and sense of security, and to simply abandon our fate into the hands of God. True worship happens when we say to God, “I have this need, but You are so important that I am prepared to give up the fulfillment of my need.”

May Lent be a season of breaking free from the chains of self-fulfillment and need.

The Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6)

As Advent rolls around the corner, we will no doubt hear the many familiar verses and passages that have become associated with the season. One of the most prominent of these verses is Isa 9:6 which reads as follows:-

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

This is pretty much the same translation we get with the NKJV, NASB, NIV and the ESV, with minor stylistic differences. The NET, NRSV and JPS, however, presents a slightly different translation. In this article I would like to look at what is behind these differences and you may be surprised to find that there is a lot more going on here, and the final translation of the verse may be something rather unexpected.

Let us begin where I tend to begin in this series, with the original Hebrew. The Hebrew bible has different versification and in this case, the equivalent verse is actually Isa 9:5, and here is the text.

כִּי־יֶ֣לֶד יֻלַּד־לָ֗נוּ בֵּ֚ן נִתַּן־לָ֔נוּ וַתְּהִ֥י הַמִּשְׂרָ֖ה עַל־שִׁכְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ פֶּ֠לֶא יוֹעֵץ֙ אֵ֣ל גִּבּ֔וֹר אֲבִיעַ֖ד שַׂר־שָׁלֽוֹם

The translation and transliteration is as follows:-

ki_yeled       yulad_l’anu                        ben      nitan_l’anu
For_a-child has-been-born_to’you a-son has-been-given_to’you

v’tehi                  ha’misrah        al_shikhemo
and’it-will-be the’dominion on_his-shoulder

v’yiqra         shemo      pele yoetz                  el gibor
And’called his-name wonderful advisor mighty god

avi’ad                                     sar_shalom
my-father’everlasting  prince_of-peace

If we were to smooth out this translation, the first part would read something like this:-

For a child has been born to you, a son has been given to you, and the dominion will be on his shoulder.

The thing to notice here is that the words “yulad” (has been born) and “nitan” (has been given) in the Hebrew are in the perfect (completed) tense [or more familiarly, past-tense]. The common English translations (NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV) obfuscates this with “is born” and “is given”, whereas the NET, NRSV and JPS actually translates this more accurately as “has been born” and “has been given”. This also means that the plain reading of this verse would present Isaiah as referring to something that has already happened, as opposed to a future referent. Who could he be referring to then, if not a future messiah?

The second part of the verse gets even more complicated because not only is “yiqra” (called) in the perfect tense (ie. completed and past) but it is what is known as a qal-verb (simple unaugmented form) which means that it is an active verb. Active verbs typically require a subject (the acting agent) and usually has an object (that which is acted upon). Since “yiqra” is an active verb in the perfect tense meaning “called”, then there must be a subject, and an object. Someone called someone else something. Okay, so now we look back at our sentence and we have to ask ourself who the subject of this sentence is? Who is doing the calling here? The object we know from the suffix of “shemo” (meaning: his-name) so we know that someone called his-name something. The “his” here refers to the “child” from the first part of the sentence. When a noun ends with an “o”, that’s usually a third person masculine singular referrent – “him” or “his” – and since “shem” means “name”, “shemo” means “his name”.

The mystery here is in the identity of the subject or agent – who is doing the calling? Before we get into that, it is worth pointing out that the English translations completely alters the original meaning and translates “yiqra” passively into “he will be called”. What was originally a perfect active verb became an imperfect passive verb. Once again, NET, NRSV and the JPS gets this more right than the NKJV, NASB, NIV and ESV. The JPS Isa 9:6 reads:-

He has been named “The Mighty God is planning grace, The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler”

At least they got the tense correct but even here, it translates the verb passively and avoids the problem of requiring a subject or agent for the verb. One clue to how to resolve this mystery comes from the Targum, the Jewish oral tradition and commentary of the bible. In it, it gives the translation of Isa 9:5b as:-

And his name has been called from before the One Who Causes Wonderful Counsel, God the Warrior, the Eternally Existing One, “The Messiah who will increase peace upon us in his days.”

Here you see that they have made the first three of the four titles the subject or agent, and the last title the name. In other words:-

And the wonderful Counsellor and mighty God, our(my) everlasting Father, has called him the Prince of Peace.

This construction and translation is legitimate because, for example, we find a similarly structured verse in Gen 3:20a:-

וַיִּקְרָ֧א הָֽאָדָ֛ם שֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ חַוָּ֑ה

Transliterated and translated this is:-

v’yiqra        ha’adam shem         ishto       chawah
and’called  the’man name (of) his-wife Eve

Here we see both the subject and object follows the active verb “yiqra” with the name being the last in the sentence. If this is true, then the child does not have four titles as we have been taught, but one title – “Prince of Peace” – and the one declaring this is the wise and mighty God himself, our everlasting Father. This child was, literally, a “son” of God the Father.

The conventional (but erroneous) translation is popular because it lends itself to trinitarian arguments which identifies the child with the father, the messiah with God himself. Unfortunately this is not borne out by the actual Hebrew text. The text still has strong messianic overtones, especially in the following verse where it says (Isa 9:7):-

Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

This verse falls within the first 12-chapters of Isaiah, the oracles against Judah, and comes on the heels of the vision Isaiah had in Isa 6:1. Isaiah served under four of the Israeli kings – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah. Uzziah was considered one of the good kings but he had just died. His son, Jotham, was already a co-regent for 11-years by that time, and would go on to rule another 5-years as a good king after Uzziah died. After Jotham, Ahaz (a bad king) reigned for 16-years before Hezekiah took to the throne at the age of 25. Hezekiah would have been born by this time* and it is quite possible that at the time Uzziah died or soon thereafter Isaiah was thinking about Hezekiah and prophesying about him when he said those words in Isa 9:6.

*The calculation of years is complicated by the unknown years of co-regency between kings.

Now, it is not uncommon for biblical prophecies to have multiple fulfillments and even if it was Hezekiah that Isaiah was originally thinking about, it could also refer to a future messiah. However, if this was referring to Hezekiah in the first place, there is no way that Isaiah would have conferred him the titles “mighty God” and “everlasting Father”. That would force the translation to follow the lines of the Targum, meaning that these titles were a reference to God, the agent, who was declaring the name of the messianic child to be the Prince of Peace.

This child is spoken of again in Rev 11:15:-

Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!”

As we approach the season of Advent in these chaotic times, may we keep our eye on the one Prince of Peace whose kingdom will have no end.

All in “Al”, to heap or not to heap coals: Prov 25:22

Another public holiday, another linguistic write-up.

In his exhortation to the Roman church, Paul advises them to be peaceable and not to seek revenge. The reason he gives is through the citation of two separate OT verses, Deut 32:35 and Prov 25:21-22, suggesting that God will eventually exact vengeance upon the unjust and their kind acts towards the “enemies” will only compound the injustice and thus multiply the eventual judgement upon them. In other words, be nice to your enemies because in so doing, you’re making it worse for them. Rom 12:19-20 (NASB) says:-

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Now, off the bat, this should come across as a little strange considering all that Jesus had taught – the forgiveness of our enemies from the heart – as opposed to the hope for their eventual punishment (although this was certainly a popular thought in the Jewish mind for their enemies.) Are we really to be kind towards our enemies for the sake of their eventual punishment? The citation Paul used came from Proverbs 25:21-22 (NKJV) which goes:-

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, And the LORD will reward you.

This seems to justify what Paul had intended in “leaving room for the wrath of God” but for a little problem in the text. Specifically, the word translated “heap” in our English translations is the word חֹתֶ֣ה (Hebrew:choteh) which actually means “take” or “snatch”. The relevant part of the verse reads (R-to-L):-

כִּ֤י גֶֽחָלִ֗ים אַ֭תָּה חֹתֶ֣ה עַל־רֹאשׁ֑וֹ

Transliteration and direct translation:-

ki    gecholim atah choteh al_rosho
for coals          you   snatch  on_his-head

As you might already see, we have a problem here with the agreement between the verb “snatch” and the preposition “on” (Hebrew:al). Normally a preposition “from” (Hebrew:me) would be used together with a verb like “snatch”. The LXX (from which Paul most likely quoted) translates the Hebrew “choteh” as the Greek σωρεύσεις :“heap” (or “pile up”) as well. Everywhere else this lexeme appears in the OT, however, it is translated as “take” or “snatch” or “pluck”.

Isa 30:14 (NKJV) – … a shard to take fire from the hearth …
Psa 52:5 (NKJV) – … and pluck you out of your dwelling place …
Prov 6:27 (NKJV) – Can a man take fire to this bosom …

The only reason why “heap” is used over against its normal meaning is because of this verb-preposition disagreement and preference was given to the prepositional direction. Here is where it might be useful to look into the history of the Hebrew language. Hebrew and its more ancient form – Paleo-Hebrew – belong to a Semitic language group that, while similar to, is distinct from the Akkadian cuneiform family. It does, however, share considerable similarity with the Ugaritic cuneiform (Northwest Semitic group) writing and there are suggestions that the Ugaritic cuneiform is a pre-cursor to Hebrew. In Ugaritic, the preposition “al” can mean both “on, upon, onto, over” as well as “from on”, meaning that Prov 25:22 can be translated (literally) as:-

For coals you snatch from-on_his-head, and Yahovah (will) complete/pay [shalem] you.

The meaning of this translation goes from one of adding to the wrath to one of defusing the wrath – the removal of angry coals from someone and runs along the lines of Prov 15:1 (NKJV):-

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Now, this, to me, sounds a lot more consistent with what Jesus taught and, more intuitively, something that God would reward. The motivation for doing good to our enemies takes a 180-degree turn along with the change in the handling of the preposition “al”. This also flows much better with the tenor of the rest of Proverbs, that of peacemaking rather than just tongue-biting while a vengeful fire burns within. Contextually, why would you want to heap coals of fire on someone who is (Prov 25:21) hungry and thirsty anyway? Wouldn’t it be far more prudent to take the opportunity to win them over by offering them hospitality here? Would not extending kindness to a needy “enemy” defuse the fiery coals of enmity? Prov 24:17 (NKJV) tells us not to rejoice or be glad in our hearts when our enemies stumble or fall.

It seems to me, then, that not only is this translation more viable linguistically by taking into consideration the normal meaning of “choteh”, it is also more sensible contextually and consistent theologically. Unfortunately, it raises another problem for us because Paul had cited it from the LXX which had lost this nuance and he had used the text in a way opposite from how the author of Proverbs most likely intended it to be. I think Paul got it wrong in so far as making room for God’s wrath.

In summary, here is what Jesus himself taught concerning our enemies in Luke 6:35 (NKJV):-

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.

Go read the rest of it in Luke 6:27-36 (NKJV) on your holiday.

The nature of inspired truth: Deut 30:12-14

I’m making a note to myself to keep these posts short but I must admit that I do get carried away by the topic in question because it is so fundamentally important to our faith. We’ve been working towards a more sophisticated yet robust view of inspiration, one that takes divinity and humanity together in a sensible yet effective manner. If you haven’t done so, I recommend reading the previous post(s). Now that we have an idea of what a doctrine of inspiration can be, what would the truths and revelations contained in the bible look like? What are the implications of such a view of inspiration?

Well, first of all – these truths would be simple and easy to understand. It’s not going to be “rocket-science” or anything with levels of detail that would demand more rigorous modes of transmissions. Biblical truths should be broad-stroked rather than fine-grained. The bible is not going to spell out fine details about what we should or should not do, or how we should or should not do it, in general. The nature of inspired truth is going to be more like broad principles and guides. Anything else will require us to postulate outlandish theories of God directly intervening in every step of the transmission, including translations, and the sum of evidence that we have does not support this theory. One should likewise be wary when someone purports to bring a specially derived “revelation” from the bible, usually involving convoluted reasoning – this is probably not inspired truth.

Secondly, it should not be obscure or esoteric. You won’t need a secret key to unlock the bible as such – the bible is designed to make truth known to us, rather than to conceal it from us. While it was true that Jesus used parables to confound his skeptics (and cynics), he ultimately revealed the truth to seekers and that revelation is often captured for us in the writings of his disciples. There is no “bible-code”, unfortunately for conspiracy theorists or neo-gnostics. Deu 30:12-14 (NKJV) tells us:-

It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

The point of scripture is to make this easy to understand broad principles of God known to man. While the bible contains many details, we are to make an abstraction from those details to arrive at the underlying truths, as opposed to being caught up in the details. So if Jesus made mud out of his saliva and healed the blind – the point is that Jesus healed the blind. Some Christians get hung up on the details of the methods or even try to duplicate them, as if the secret rested therein. A case in point is the longer ending of the gospel of Mark. If you have a half-decent study bible, you will notice that Mark 16:9-20 comes with a footnote that tells you that this section is absent from all the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts (including the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus). How it appears in the most reliable manuscripts is as follows (the alternative Mk 16:9):-

They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.

This is known as the “shorter ending” of Mark and is considered the more reliable one. Scholars believe that the longer ending (the one in most of our bibles) verses were scribal additions not present in the original autograph. Without going into the actual debate, one could say that while the details of the longer and shorter endings differ, the spirit – the broad strokes – remain the same, namely that Jesus sent the disciples into the world to preach the gospel. With the longer, and more unreliable, ending however, you get a whole bunch of details, including v.18 which says that disciples who thus go out (Mk 16:18):-

“… will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

I think most of us would not presume to test out the veracity of this “promise” any time soon. Christians taking a literal and plenary view of inspiration, however, are faced with two options – to either explain away the verse, or explain why they ignore what they consider God’s direct word, or if they have enough integrity (and insanity) to actually do it. As it turns out, there are a small number of Pentecostal (holiness movement) churches in the US who espouse exactly this. The idea being to take verbal plenary inspiration to the extreme and as a result, they actually have snake handling as part of their worship services to prove that God is keeping His promises, much in the same way that some Charismatics use miracles and healing to prove a point. Recently, there was a bit of unfortunate news in one of these churches in Kentucky whose pastor was bitten by a viper and refused medical treatment, and died. My point is that the most reliable revelations rest in the non-obscure truths of the bible.

The third feature of biblical revelation is that it must be presented in a redundant manner. In other words, you won’t find a crucial revelation that only appears in one single verse or a single word. Can you imagine what the ramifications might be for God and for us if a worm happened to eat through the papyrus in that particular spot? God is smarter than that and His truth is spread out in a redundant (meaning that there are many backups) fashion throughout the text. If it appears in only one place – it should be suspect in so far as being made into dogma or doctrine. So if you find a rare verse such as Ecc 10:19 (NKJV) that says:-

A feast is made for laughter,
And wine makes merry;
But money answers everything.

you just have to ask yourself if this is the consistent message of the bible or just an oddity. To assume that every single word, even in context, is God’s direct word could be theologically disastrous. I don’t personally understand why this isn’t admitted by more theologians and teachers – especially those insisting on plenary inerrancy. They usually will jump through all kinds of hoops to try and squirm their way out of such issues mainly because their view of inspiration is flawed from the start. It’s their view that is flawed, not the text of the bible per se.

00-edvard-munch-the-scream-1893

When you enter an art gallery and look upon a painting, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, for example, and start commenting: “Oh this is a terrible painting. Look how the eyes lack eye brows and is so disproportionate. The face is also missing a ear and who has ever seen a sky that looks like that. This is a terrible representation of truth,” you’d be missing the point of the painting. The problem isn’t the painting. It’s your expectation of a photograph when the artist never intended to give you a photograph. Correct interpretation of the painting will require a correct understanding of the nature of the piece of art, and in this case it is an abstract style known as “expressionism”. Many Christians make exactly this mistake – going to the bible expecting a “photograph” because that’s the easiest thing for them to interpret when the bible isn’t a “photograph.”

I think with this post, I will conclude the discussion on inspiration – this inspiration of authorial intent is a pragmatic and practical view that takes reality into account. It does take some of the mysticism out of the bible and for those who cherished that mysticism, what can I say but “sorry”. The saving power of the bible, however, lies not in its mystical nature but in the truth that it contains. So there you go – stop making the bible say what we want it to say, or say what it never intended to say, and start listening to what it is trying to tell us.

The human hand in the text: Matt 2:6

Previously we looked at how the NT canon came to be formed. The closed canon was created by necessity for the purpose of safe-guarding the church from error. It does not mean that God’s truth cannot be found in any of the other writings but that these are the officially accepted ones. They were thus endorsed because the church discerned that these writings correctly reflect the Christian message. Writings outside the canon did not receive the same official stamp of approval but could very well still prove useful and beneficial. Scriptural status was gained through the wide-spread usage of the texts within the liturgy of the church and is more an indication of the function of the texts rather than the “inspiredness” of it.

In thinking about the nature of scriptural inspiration, we must also consider the human intermediary – the writers of the texts. Only then can we really ask ourselves what exactly it is that is inspired within the text of scriptures. Let us begin with Matthew 2:6 where Matthew quotes from Micah 5:2 as proof that Jesus fulfilled biblical prophecy. Matt 2:6 (NKJV):-

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”

The idea here is that Bethlehem though small is NOT insignificant (“not the least”) because of the fact that the messiah will come forth from her folds. This is all fine until we look at Micah 5:2 (JPS):-

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath
Least among the clans of Judah
From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me
One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times.”

You will notice that Bethlehem here is said to be the “least” in Judah, contrary to Matt 2:6. Some English translations have tried to soften this contradiction by introducing words like “though you are little” (NKJV) but the problem remains. This doesn’t change the purpose of the citation, it still shows Jesus fulfilling Micah 5:2 but we see that the writers were humans. Let us consider another example. Luke 2:4 tells us:-

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.

From this we understand that Joseph’s city of origin was Nazareth before he travelled to Bethlehem. Matthew 2, however, offers us a different sequence of events. In Matt 2:1 we are told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and fled to Egypt soon after that. Upon return from Egypt after Herod died, they returned to Israel and eventually found their way to Nazareth and settled there. Matt 2:22-23:-

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

It appears that we have two conflicting accounts of the movement of Joseph and his family in Luke and Matthew. What do we make of this? What about when Matthew quotes Jeremiah in Matt 27:9-10:-

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the LORD directed me.

Unfortunately there is no such verse in Jeremiah, although we do have the verse in Zechariah 11:12-13:-

Then I said to them, “If it is agreeable to you, give me my wages; and if not, refrain.” So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD for the potter.

More famously, the synoptic gospels has Jesus celebrating the last-supper on Passover day. Mark 14:12:-

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to Him, “Where do You want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?”

John, however, has other ideas about this because Jesus was crucified on the day before the Passover, the preparation day. John 19:14:-

Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”

Surely they can’t both be correct – that is Jesus celebrating the Passover after he had been crucified? The purpose of these examples (and there are many more) is to make us ask concerning the nature of scriptural inspiration. Do we mean that every single word (including those errors above) were divinely given by God? In which case, God must have made some mistakes. Or do we argue that the text was somehow corrupted in transmission and has become unreliable? It is in thinking about such textual issues that I find the verbal plenary views of inspiration to be untenable and unhelpful because they do not explain our text. Article VI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example, states that:-

WE AFFIRM  that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

If we were to take this position in the light of the above examples, it must mean that either God made mistakes, or that He was deliberating misleading us, or that our texts are corrupt. None of these are helpful conclusions – and that is why I think we are in need of a less pious but more historically sound idea of inspiration.

I am inviting you to consider a more sophisticated view of scriptural inspiration – one of inspired truth delivered to men who relied on their human abilities to convey it. This truth that is couched in those earthen vessels is a simple and robust core, expressed in a variety of ways through our NT writings, and is so obvious that it shines clearly through in spite of the imperfections of the vessels.

In this view, the authors had received truth and revelation from God through various means – through the Lord’s teachings himself, or through apostolic traditions handed down. The first thing we believe in this idea of “inspiration” is that they received the revelation correctly and sufficiently for its intended purpose(s). So for example, when Jesus says in Mark 4:31 (NKJV) that the mustard seed “is smaller than all the seeds on earth” – I will hold that the statement concerning the absolute size of the seed in relation to other seeds, this scientific statement, is not part of the intended purpose of Mark 4:31. The intended purpose was to make a parabolic point to serve within the larger illustration. The inspiration is limited to the truths that the writings were intended to convey. I call this the inspiration of “authorial intent”. In the same way, the bible writers were not generally intending to make scientific or absolute historical comment and the absolute factual content of those (scientific or historical) comments, when they appear in the bible, are incidental rather than essential and are therefore not regarded as “inspired”.

In the same way, when Matthew misquotes Micah, that was the human artefact in his writing. His intent was to show that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy – this is the inspired intent. What this means is that we have to read the bible for intent (and intended message) rather than becoming obsessed with the particularities of a text. While it is important to study the text because this allows us to understand what the author meant to say, it is also true that the authorial intent is not generally obscure. They are relatively easy to understand once you get past the basic language issues. Where textual studies are important is to ascertain what was actually written. Historical and contextual studies help us to understand what was meant. Theological studies help us piece it all together to get a big picture of the biblical truth.

Theology, history and language inform each other to help us arrive at a better understanding of the author’s intent. To some extent our distance from the cultural and linguistic context of the original writers of the bible means that more work needs to be done to regain the correct understanding and this sometimes requires specialist skills in language and history to help in uncovering those original messages and meanings. It is an unfortunate reality that there is this added layer of obscurity that was not originally present but inevitably so given the passage of time.

There are some implications to this view of inspiration – namely that if we take verses out of the intended purpose of the authors, it can no longer be considered “inspired”. In this view, inspiration does not necessarily reside in a particular noun, verb, adjective, conjunction, article, or even sentences, but in the meaning contained by the collective words and sentences as intended by the authors. It is a view of divine revelation wrapped up within the author’s understanding, wrapped up within the limits of the cultural context, wrapped up within text, wrapped up in transmission and finally wrapped up in translation. This multiple layers of wrapping still works because the inspired intent of the authors – the divine revelation – is robust, simple and redundantly communicated through many aspects in the bible as a whole.

Let me just close this post with this illustration. You want to convey the appearance of your face to your friend in another country but you can’t fly there yourself. So you start by taking a photograph of yourself with a digital camera on your phone, for example. The moment you do this, your image is broken up into millions of little dots called pixels. If you zoom all the way in, you will only see what appears to be a mosaic of pixels and nothing like your face. But this works because you have many pixels and your face is pretty big. This digital image is now compressed when you send it through e-mail to your friend, a process that throws away a whole bunch of pixels that the computer deems unnecessary (ie. that you won’t notice) in order to make the image smaller and easier to send. When your friend receives the file and opens it, he views it on his old monitor which has a few hundred faulty pixels (out of a few million) and faded colours. Not only that, his monitor has less pixels than your original photograph. By this time, you could say that the original file has undergone considerable “corruption” but when he looks at the picture on the screen, he will recognise you right away. He might not be able to count the hairs on your eyebrows or see the little mole on your cheek, but it is sufficient to get the intended picture. This is pretty much why this view of inspiration works – it focuses on the essential message, one that is robust enough to withstand the vagaries of time. In short – biblical truth is robust in nature.

I’ll probably discuss this a little more in another post as this one seems to be getting rather long. Hope this is helping.

Formation of the NT: John 20:31

When we step back and look at the big picture, we can see that the “system” must have worked because we do understand the gospel and we call Jesus our Lord. In spite of all the potential problems with textual selection, transmission, and translation – we got the message. 2,000-years is an awfully long time to keep the message passed along. This has been possible because the core message of the NT is a simple one. When we look at the purpose of the early church, functionally, they simply wanted to ensure that the message would be passed on to future generations and that they might believe. John 20:30-31 explains exactly why he wrote his gospel:-

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

From this point of view, if people would read the gospel of John, and believe in Jesus, he would have succeeded, and succeed he did. At that point in time, no one was asking if a particular sentence or word that John used was “inspired” or divinely selected or not. They were focused on the substance of his message, rather than its particular form or expression.

As the apostles grew older or neared their death (Peter died ca. 65AD), it became more important for them to write down what they had learned from Jesus. Peter, for example, felt compelled to write the encyclical that is 2Peter because he knew his time was short. 2Pet 1:13-15 (NKJV) tells us:-

Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease.

In time to come, these letters and gospels gained wider circulation among the fledgling churches. According to Eusebius (260-339AD), Bishop of Caesarea and church historian, that period saw all kinds of documents in circulation, including letters, sermons, theological treatises, commentaries and histories. There was a lot of writing going on after the initial decades and this was a serious effort. Letter writing was costly and involved – you usually required the services of a writer (sometimes called an “amanuensis”) such as Tertius (Rom 16:22) and Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) (1Pet 5:12). These writers helped in the crafting of the letters and going over the drafts before the final copies were sent out, so it’s not like Paul or Peter himself sat down to write, except where they wanted to leave a mark of authenticity (2Thess 3:17, Col 4:18, Gal 6:11, 1Cor 16:21),

These and other letters were read aloud in church meetings, and usually copied for further circulation. With the proliferation of letters, however, you can imagine that there would increasingly be the problem of ascertaining which letters were orthodox and which were not. The idea was that these letters were supposed to be, in the words of Paul (2Tim 3:16-17), “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” and the general equipping of the church. As an example, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth (ca.168AD) wrote to Bishop Soter of Rome the following message:-

We read your letter today, the Lord’s Day, and shall continue to read it frequently for our admonition, as we do with the earlier letter Clement wrote on your [i.e. the church at Rome’s] behalf.

The problem was that there also pseudo-epigraphs (letters falsely claiming to be from another author) as well as letters from disputed individuals espousing questionable or heretic teaching. Bishop Serapion of Antioch (ca. 200AD) found out that a certain “Gospel of Peter” was being read among the churches in Antioch and after some investigation, stopped them on the basis that the theology was questionable (it was docetic.) Increasingly the need for some kind of checking became important to ensure that churches were not being misled by unorthodox writings. This was further compounded by the fact that an influential church leader, Marcion (ca. 144AD), was rejecting some letters ascribed to Paul, and all of the OT scriptures, and had come up with his own list of approved books and letters:-

Luke
Galatians
1 & 2 Corinthians
Romans
1 & 2 Thessalonians
Ephesians
Colossians
Philemon
Phillippians

while rejecting the gospels of Matthew and John.

These developments provided the impetus for the early church to put in some measures to ensure orthodoxy in the midst of a theologically volatile context where heresy was rife. The response was not as organised as we would like to think, with different parties coming up with their own measures and criteria. In 170AD, for example, another list was put up, likely in response to disputed lists such as Marcion’s. This list, known as the Muratorian Canon, contained 22 out of the 27 books of our NT, leaving out:-

Hebrews
1 & 2 Peter
James
3 John

but included the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter (which later proved to be a pseudo-epigraph.) The selection of the books of the canon was a process of evolving consensus among the churches as to which books were deemed authentic, orthodox, and widely accepted. It certainly wasn’t a clear cut process, especially for some of the books which were not included until much later. The notion that these books were “inspired”, the way we understand it, probably hadn’t entered their mind as yet but the function of the letters as being standards of teaching in the church would slowly grant them the status of “scripture.” Scripture, in this sense, would be akin to official religious texts employed in churches.

It should be mentioned that there were also other widely accepted texts that were in use in the churches, such as the letters of 1 & 2 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Jubilees, Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans, Apocalypse of Peter, Preaching of Peter, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Hebrews. Some of these books bore outlandish teachings and accounts while others were fairly sound. Over time, these were rejected as official standards for a variety of reasons, including questionable content or authorship, late date of writing and unorthodox theology. Some segments of the church (usually different geographic regions) continued to accept these books as standard until much later.

The purpose of the history here is to demonstrate that the process of arriving at a canon (a standard set) for NT books was by no means a clear and simple process. It evolved over time with some books being added or rejected before the church eventually arrived at a greater consensus. It was a process driven by pragmatic need and a desire to ensure orthodoxy. The criteria used were commonsensical criteria but were not necessarily universally understood, agreed upon or applied in the same ways – it wasn’t so much an organised application of criteria as it was the collective discernment of the early church. We should also keep in mind that theology itself was being clarified through this period, over against heresies and gnosticism.

When we read authors like F. F. Bruce (in his book “The Canon of Scripture”) and see the criteria set forth as “Apostolicity, Antiquity, Orthodoxy and Catholicity”, it is tempting to think that these were universally agreed upon and that some group sat down to ascertain the qualifications of the various books. That was not the case. While these were indeed the commonsensical considerations, it was a more diffused and organic application over time. This process took a few centuries and, even then, still contained variations to our bible. The first list that matches our NT comes from Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (367AD). By then the idea of limiting (or closing) the official canon books was a common idea and these writings had acquired the status of “scripture”. In his 39th Festal Epistle he writes:-

These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures. And he reproved the Jews, saying, Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of me.

The 3rd Council of Carthage later in 397AD issued an official notice on the canon of the NT as follows:-

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Chronicles, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon. Because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.

This contained all of the 27-books of our NT but also included some apocryphal books (in bold text).

As we conclude this long historical post, I will note that the idea of “inspiration” as we know it has not been needed thus far. What we needed to know was that these NT books that we have, were the same ones the early church used to learn about the faith – faith that led them to Jesus as Lord. Even without broaching the issue of inspiration, the pragmatic view is that these books were sufficient for their intended purpose – that of making us disciples as they were.  If it was beneficial and profitable enough for them, it is good enough for us. We will look at “inspiration” in upcoming posts but I will have to stop here for now.

Before the writing of the NT: 2Tim 2:2

Between the time Jesus died and when the first NT epistle was written (probably 1Thessalonians circa 50AD) there were nearly two decades, during which the church saw considerable growth going by the report in Acts. Without written material, the early church relied on oral recounting of the teachings of Jesus and that of the apostles, as well as the OT which was regarded as their only scriptures at that time (Acts 8:28-32). We further know that letters were sent by the apostles to various churches in the region (Acts 13:23).

During those 20-years or so, how do you suppose the inspired message of God was disseminated to the faithful? I would suppose that it would be in the oral recounting, in the teachings of the apostles, some of which were distributed in letters. In 2Tim 2:2 (NASB) [at this point the canonical gospels were not written], Paul instructs Timothy as follows:-

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Notice that Paul specifically says “heard” as opposed to “read”. The “things” would be the essential teachings Paul had verbally taught the churches. Did Paul mean that Timothy had to remember the exact words he had used, or the substance of the teaching? I would suggest to you that it was the latter that Timothy was being exhorted to pass on to other faithful men.

I want to think about the substance of the inspired word of God at this point of time and it’s nature. Here are some fairly straightforward inferences we can make:-

  1. The inspired payload was successfully delivered through those 20-years
  2. It could not have been an overly complex payload for this to have worked
  3. The message of that payload was not tied to any particular form of expression (ie. different people might have delivered the same inspired message differently, in their own words.)
  4. What was “inspired” was the substance of this message, more so that particular expressions (notice that the different gospels recorded what were essentially same parables but with slightly different wordings.)
  5. The essential inspire payload would be close to something like the Apostle’s Creed in substance and simplicity
  6. Along with that essential message came practices that became normative traditions (such as the holy communion, etc.)
  7. This gospel payload and apostolic tradition would be accompanied by various teachings, explanations, exhortations

Keep in mind that all of this is before the writing of 1Thessalonians, before we have even one of the “inspired” books of the NT canon. God’s word must have persisted through that period before came to be written down. This inspired content, I am arguing, predates any written NT books and must therefore be independent of the particularities of those books. To put it another way, the gospel message existed as it passed from mouth to ear without any written words. In time, some of those recounting became more standardised and formulaic (creedal). I am suggesting that it was this same inspired content that the NT writings is supposed to contain. It is the substance of the message, rather than the particular expressions, that was inspired. In this way, as long as a translation faithfully conveys the message, even though it is necessarily re-expressed in different languages, one can still consider it “inspired.” (Consider the fact that Jesus probably used Hebrew/Aramaic and the NT is mostly Greek. Translating was inevitable.)

I suggested that the inspired payload/substance of the NT era would not be overly complex because it had be to be robust enough to withstand the limitations of oral transmission. It also had to be simple enough for people to retain in memory without written aid, and be transferable enough to be passed from generation to generation. We are not looking at trying to preserve fine print here, but broad strokes of a simple message. This message can be broken down into the following categories:-

  • Gospel narrative – ie. the account what Jesus did and taught
  • Apostolic traditions – ie. Christian norms and practices as they evolved
  • Pastoral instruction – covers a variety of issues and situations

1Tim 3:16 (NASB) provides us with an example of how concise and simple such inspired content can be:-

He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.

Another example of an creedal content is found in Phil 2:6-11 (NRSV):-

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

One could conceivably say this in many different ways, while preserving the essential substance. The later Apostle’s Creed (120-250AD) says pretty much the same thing but more elaborately. The middle section of the Apostle’s Creed looks like this:-

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

As for Apostolic Traditions, the Didache (circa 65-80AD) is probably the best example of what they communicated to those (Gentiles) wanting to become Christians. It gives the basic OT laws, instructions on how they ought to live, Christian rites (baptism and holy communion [Eucharist]), and other general pastoral instructions. In fact, most of the NT content would fall pretty much into the same categories as those covered in the Didache. It is quite well worth reading, if nothing else, to get a sense of what the earliest Christians were taught. You will find that most of what they were taught familiar but some pastoral instructions vary or differ from what you might find in the epistles.

The purpose of this brief survey of material is to demonstrate that prior to the writing of the NT canon texts, the early church seemed to be more concerned with preserving the substance of the “inspired” message than with the form and specific expressions and words that couch them. To put it another way, the “inspiration” rested with the substance more than it did with the specific wordings. This substance was the “faith” they were contending for before the NT canon took shape (Jude 1:3). Through this, I also hope that we gain some sense of how the early church operated before they had the NT canon. It was this early context that the NT writings emerged and functioned in, and may help us better understand what we mean when we say that the NT writings are scripture and inspired.

All of this, before the writing of the NT canon texts.

Beginnings of NT scriptures: Luke 1:1-4

In a previous post I pointed out how 2Tim 3:16 could not be used as proof-text for the idea of biblical inspiration.  We looked at the text and the context to arrive at that conclusion. But even if 2Tim 3:16 had been a proof-text, there would still be logical problems with a book, 2Timothy in this case, being considered inspired just because the same book declares itself to be inspired. There is circularity in the logic here and it would be like an accused saying, “I’m innocent because I said so!” We would not accept that kind of reasoning in the courts of law, so why would we resort to that kind of logic when it comes to the issue of the inspiration of scripture? What this shows is that we’re going to need a whole new kind of reasoning if we’re going to show the inspiration of scripture, and stop relying of proof-texts. The early church surely could not rely on 2Tim 3:16 to determine whether a book was inspired or not. So how did they do it?

While the early Christians readily accepted the OT canon, things were less tidy with the NT writings. Various letters were often circulated and read in the different churches. Back in those days, one of the main ways information was disseminated was through public reading. This is also why it came to be that scripture reading was a part of church life from very early on. In addition to reading of scriptures, letters from various persons and other churches were also read. Acts 15:23-29, for example, is a short letter from the church in Jerusalem to the church of Antioch, Syria, and Cicilia. Such a letter would be read publicly – a little bit like what we might do in our “announcement” segment of our church services.

Over time, some of the letters gained greater circulation whilst others surely faded away. The trouble was that there were a great number of such letters going around and it eventually became a concern as to the veracity of those letters. Some were clear forgeries and it came to the attention of bishops these were being read in the churches, which led to some reactionary measures which included certain simple criteria being put in place for what could be read. This happened pretty early on, as soon as the documents falsely claiming to be authoritative started going into circulation, as you would expect. This was not an organised effort, especially since the early church wasn’t as institutionalised as it is now. I suppose it would not be too much to say that it was actually more of a commonsensical approach, as opposed to a mystical or religious one. It came about that some of these criteria became more useful and widely accepted. We will discuss these criteria but for now, let us begin with the nature of the NT writings from the perspectives of the authors themselves.

The books of the NT were not “born” as scripture. They were originally letters of communications to various individuals and churches addressing a variety of needs and issues. We know this because Paul, in several places, specifically said that he was rendering his own opinion in the midst of teaching biblical positions (on the basis of OT laws.) The case in point here is 1Cor 7:25 (NASB):-

Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.

Prior to this, in 1Cor 7:19 (NASB), Paul indicates that he was teaching: “… but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” In essence, Paul was applying OT principles into the Corinthian context, producing a teaching that was based on (OT) scriptural authority. After he had done this, he inserts v.25 as his own opinion. I think it is quite clear that Paul wasn’t of the mind that he was writing new scriptures that were inherently authoritative. His teaching was authoritative in a derivative sense – in that it reflected (OT) scriptural principles, albeit interpreted with the benefit of Christian history. He does this again in 2Cor 11:17 (NKJV):-

What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this confidence of boasting.

Once again, Paul explicitly injects what he considers his personal views into the text, referring to most of 2Cor 11. It seems rather unlikely that Paul was writing this with the mind that he was creating inherently authoritative scripture (as opposed to derivatively authoritative.) None of the early Christians would have initially anticipated that there would one day be a selection of their writings that would be considered “scriptures” in the same way that the “holy writings” of old were.

This is an important thought, and if true, it must be asked – at which point did these NT writings come to be regarded as “scriptures”? The thought is important because most Christians assume that the NT books are scriptures because they were inspired by God, presumably from the time of writing. But at the time of writing, it is likely that the authors as well as the readers had no notion of the letters being inherently inspired, much less as holy scriptures. Authoritative, definitely and derivatively. Scriptures. Probably not yet.

Consider how Luke (although the gospel itself doesn’t name him) explains his work. Luke 1:1-4 (NKJV):-

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

Luke, it seems, was saying that he was doing what many others have done – that is to put together an account of Jesus’ teachings – and he was writing this for his friend Theophilus (although some argue that Theophilus wasn’t an actual person but a “code” for a those who love God.) On the surface of it, it was a personal letter, albeit an extremely long one. Luke’s motivation was that it seemed like a good idea to him – ἔδοξεν κἀμοὶ would be more directly translated “and I thought”. I’m not entirely sure why some versions translate it as “seemed good” because the idea of “good” just isn’t there in the Greek. The NRSV and NIV come closer with their translations of Luke 1:3 (NRSV):-

NRSV – I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus …
NIV – With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus …

So Luke had this idea (you could say that he was perhaps inspired?) to inform Theophilus of what he had learned in order to convince him (v.4). Regardless of whether Luke might have been inspired by God to embark on his writing or not, it is important to see that Luke himself did not explicitly think that he was creating new holy scriptures, as far as we can tell. It seems like he thought he was doing what many others have done (probably referring to other gospel writers though not necessarily limited to the gospels of Matthew & Mark. John was written much later.) If Luke didn’t see his writing as scripture, it should follow that his first readers would not regard it as holy scriptures either. That must have happened at some later point. At this beginning point, no one was going “Oh, Luke wrote under the inspiration of God and therefore his gospel should be included in the new canon.”

Clement of Rome, writing around 96AD, wrote the following. 1Clement 42:1 (Lightfoot translation):-

The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God.

This might have worked for Matthew but Luke was not himself an apostle, nor was he one of the first disciples of Jesus, nor even a Jew. While it is true that he might have travelled with Paul, neither was Paul one of the original 12-apostles, nor was he a direct eye-witness to the life and ministry of the Lord. (Mark was also not one of the 12-apostles either.)

My point is that the writings of Luke, which we now regard as holy scriptures, acquired that status somewhere down the line after the initial writing and first reading. The recognition that it was “theopneustos” (God-breathed:beneficial or profitable – see earlier post) came through a process that didn’t speed up until the middle of the 2nd century when the problems with spurious writings became more widespread.

The reason for all this study is to make us consider what the nature of “inspiration” might be. What qualifies something as “scripture” if not explicit divine inspiration? And when did that happen? I suspect that some Christians have this notion that God guided the hands of the writers to virtually dictate what was to be written. In that way, they would claim that every single word of the NT was literally the word of God, selected divinely and supernaturally conveyed through the NT authors’ hands (and those of their amanuensis.) At least for the examples above – this does not seem to be the case. I would suggest that “inspiration” must work some other way than what the Germans called senkrecht von oben (came vertically from above.)

This post is getting way longer than I would like it to be so I will leave you with this cliff-hanger!

Missing “inspired” books?: Col 4:16

In my last post, I suggested that 2Tim 3:15-16 referred to the Old Testament (or the Tanakh) when talking about the writings being “inspired” or “god-breathed.” Obviously that leaves us with the problem of figuring out the status of the NT books – are they or are they not inspired books? If so, on what basis do we say that they’re inspired. We would further have to talk about what we mean when we say something is “inspired”. Before getting to that, here are some questions you may want to consider even as we explore this subject.

Col 4:16 (NKJV) – Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.

In Colossians 4:15-16, Paul closes out his epistle with some instructions to greet the brethren who are in the neighbouring city of Laodicea. In v.16 he specifically instructs them to read the epistle (to the Colossians) to the Laodicean church, and to also “read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (NASB). Apparently Paul had written an encyclical epistle to the Laodiceans just as he had done for the Colossians, and he intended for the two churches to exchange those epistles. This puts the said epistle to the Laodiceans on the same footing as the epistle to the Colossians – inspired or otherwise. We have but one problem – the letter’s (sort of) gone missing (although there are purported manuscripts.)

Yup. We do not have this epistle to the Laodiceans in our NT! Question here: Do you think that the Laodicean letter is as inspired as the Colossian letter? If so, would we not be missing some important inspired revelation of God as a result of some historical boo-boo. I mean – somebody’s in trouble! (Inside (lame) joke: “I’m not sayin’ how but somebody’s gonna get hurt real bad!”) See, this poses some interesting questions to us about God’s plan for how his truth would be transmitted historically. If every bit of scripture contains some unique and special revelation, losing an entire inspired book could be catastrophic for the church, right? I mean, for all we know, it could contain some truth that could fundamentally change the way we did Christianity. So how?

Which brings me to the second question – who decided that just those 27-books of the NT (or maybe 28 if we include the missing epistle to the Laodiceans) would be THE inspired books? Think about it. The authority that determines what goes into the NT canon must itself be higher than the authority of the canon itself, by definition. It turns out that in some of the early lists of canonical NT books, other books that are no longer in our modern NT canon were included – such as “The Shepherd of Hermas” (which is arguably a rather weird allegorical work but was widely read and accepted in the early church) which was still found in the Codex Sinaiticus.

For those of you who are curious, like me, here’s the Epistle to the Laodiceans in full. This Roman letter is of an unknown date of origin but the Latin manuscript we have dates back to the 6th century. Fortunately for me (since I’m hand-typing this) it is rather short:-

Paul, an apostle not of men and not through man, but through Jesus Christ, to the brethren who are in Laodicea. Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank Christ in all my prayer that you are steadfast in him and persevering in his works, in expectation of the promise for the day of judgement. And may you not be deceived by the vain talk of some people who tell you tales that they may lead you away from the truth of the gospel which is proclaimed by me. … Therefore, beloved, as you have heard in my presence, so hold fast and do in the fear of God, and eternal life will be your portion. For it is God who works in you. And do without hesitation what you do. And for the rest, beloved, rejoice in Christ and beware of those who are out for sordid gain. May all your requests be manifest before God, and [may you] be steadfast in the mind of Christ. And what is pure, true, proper, just, and lovely, do. And what you have heard and received, hold in your heart and peace will be with you. … The saints salute you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. And see that this letter is read to the Colossians and that of the Colossians among you.

Well, now, isn’t that interesting? We will, in a future post, discuss how books came to be included into the Canon of the NT. For the moment – how would you determine if this particular book belongs in the NT?

The NT canon evolved over time. Polycarp acknowledged 15 books, Irenaeus 21 books, Hippolytus 22. A number of books in our present canon was considered controversial – Hebrews, James, 2Peter, 2 & 3John. Sometimes they fought and disagreed over which books to include – Marcion, for example, rejected many Pauline epistles and all of the Jewish books. By 170AD, the Muratorian Canon (list) included 24 of our 27 NT books. The Council of Laodicea (363AD) agreed on 26 books, the Council of Hippo (393AD) and Carthage (397AD) agreed on the present 27 books. I know that there are many who will argue vehemently that the men simply “recognized” books that God had divinely selected but truthfully, that’s a pretty lame argument that simply evades the issue. In short, we have a bit of a problem here if we continue to insist on a notion of inspiration that relies solely on having the “correct” texts. Furthermore, you cannot escape the human element in all this.

It should further be pointed out that we don’t actually know who authored some of the canonical books of the NT, such as the book of Hebrew. Some speculate that it could have been Paul but we do not know for sure. Others dispute the authenticity of the claimed authors – many of which we know only by tradition.

I think we need to explore a simpler and more robust idea of how “inspiration” works, something less “magical”. That will have to wait for yet another post.

God-breathed scriptures: 2Tim 3:16

In writing about textual and linguistic issues, it becomes natural to ask about the nature of scriptural inspiration. I thought I’d write down some thoughts on this rather important subject. Let’s just start where we find the word in the bible – 2Tim 3:16. Paul was writing to Timothy to encourage him to stay the course and to hold fast to what he has been taught. In the preceding v.14-15, Paul tells Timothy to continue in what he had learned and then referring specifically to “the Holy Scriptures” as the source of his learning. Paul further adds that these “Holy Scriptures” were able to make him wise salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

The phrase “Holy Scriptures” (NKJV) or “sacred writings” (NASB) here is translated from the Greek ἱερὰ γράμματα (Gk:hiera grammata). “Writings” is a good translation – elsewhere in the NT, the same word is often translated “letters” so we’re thinking “holy letters”. Note that since the earliest Greek were uncials (all uppercase), there is actually no capitalisation in the Greek. When you see capitalisation, that’s the input of the translators and isn’t reflected in the original text.

Now, this phrase “hiera grammata” is an odd one, as it is not found in this combination anywhere else in the bible (not even in the LXX). The context of the verse suggests that this refers to the Tanakh (our Old Testament) because at this point of writing, the gospels have probably not been penned yet. Paul died around 64AD and Mark, often believed to be the first gospel to be written, would have been written just after than and before 70AD. This means that the most likely candidate for “hiera grammata” would be, as suggested in the context, the Tanakh. Timothy, being born to a devout Jewish mother, would have been taught the Tanakh since he was young so that v.15 would make good sense.

Paul goes on in v.16 to elaborate that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, …” (NKJV and NASB) It should be obvious that Paul wasn’t referring to ALL kinds of writings at large but to all the scriptures he had just been talking about, namely the Tanakh. He certainly could not have been referring generally to the yet unwritten gospels. It is also quite unlikely that he would be referring to his own letters (including the one being written). The word “scripture” here is different from the “grammata” of v.15. It is another related word – γραφὴ – which is also used to refer to the Tanakh in Mark 12:24 and elsewhere in Pauline epistles. I think it is quite safe to say, on the basis of the context and on lexical usage, that the “scripture” in the mind of Paul is simply the Old Testament.

These (OT) scriptures, Paul says, are θεόπνευστος (Greek:theopneustos = “god-breathed”) which is translated as “inspired” in most English versions of the bible. Here again you find a word that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the NT or LXX texts (For geeks: We call this type of word a “hapax legomena” or just “hapax” for short.) When you get a hapax, it makes it difficult to extract meaning contextually since it only appears this once. Scholars try to look at the etymology of the word – “theo” (god) and “pneuma” (breath, spirit, or wind) – to guess the meaning. It seems to suggest that the subject that is “inspired” is infused with the breath (or spirit) of God, whatever that means. This approach doesn’t always work since many words have meanings totally unrelated to it’s root words, eg. hippopotamus (ἱπποπόταμος) = horse (ἵππος) + river (ποταμός), but it is neither a horse nor a river.

*As an aside, Paul had the habit of inventing words – words that don’t appear in classical Greek literature, or used in other NT writings. Sometimes he uses words from the LXX or combines words to make new ones.

So what does Paul mean by θεόπνευστος? Fortunately for us, Paul himself furnishes the answer to this question in v.16 itself – it means that the scripture in question is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, training, etc. He certainly wasn’t putting forth a doctrine of “inspiration” as we know it. As far as I can tell, he was simply pointing out that the Tanakh contained God given truths that are “profitable” (ὠφέλιμος = “beneficial”). That’s about it!

This means that if all we had was 2Tim 3:16 – we’re not going to end up with too much of a doctrine of inspiration because Paul certainly wasn’t saying anything unusual there. We sometimes make a bit too much of a word, it seems. It doesn’t mean there is no doctrine of inspiration but it does mean that we are going to need a whole lot more than just 2Tim 3:16 which is all too often used as proof-text. This verse does not tell us anything about how the bible (OT and NT) embody the revelation of God. That is rightfully an important subject worth exploring. This we will do, hopefully in future posts (if there is interest of course.)

*Note of interest: The context of 2Tim 3-4 includes ideas such as “my teaching”, “sacred writings”, “scripture”, “the word”, “sound doctrine”. Paul clearly had something in mind when using these words – something that extends beyond simply the Tanakh. Very likely we’re talking about Paul’s theological ideas that incorporated the OT and prevailing teachings of Jesus as taught by the other apostles and elders.