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A look at Pauline eschatology: 2 Thessalonians

My recent post on the number of the beast didn’t really get into the eschatology of John, mainly because my interest was in the textual issues. Admittedly, the goal of studying text is to arrive at some kind of meaning and that can sometimes be a more difficult process, involving more assumptions and in some cases conjectures. But what fun is it if we just stay within the safety of being non-committal, right? So, here’s a shot at eschatology, albeit Paul’s and not John’s.

2Thessalonians was one of the very first books that Paul penned (soon after 1Thess), if we are to believe the scholars – anywhere between 48-52AD. Written to a suffering, persecuted and battered church, here’s the quick and dirty outline for those of you who are too lazy to read it:-

  1. Paul was proud of their suffering (2Th 1:4 (NKJV))
  2. Their faithfulness in suffering was evidence of their election (2Th 1:5)
  3. God is going to repay their persecutors in the final reckoning (2Th 1:6-9)
  4. The will receive their rest (from suffering) when Jesus is revealed (2Th 1:7)
  5. Suffering for Christ is a “worthy calling”, a privilege (2Th 1:11)

Since Paul had pointed out in 2Th 1:7 that their rest would come when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven”, it is natural that the big question upon the minds of the Thessalonian Christians would be – “When is this going to happen?” Paul had anticipated this question and went on to deal with this in chapter 2, “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …”

  1. Do not believe anyone who says that Christ had already come (a second time) (2Th 2:2 (NIV))
  2. That day will come only after a great apostasy (falling away from the faith) (2Th 2:3)
  3. There will be a time where the anti-Christ (“son of perdition”) that precedes the second coming (2Th 2:4-10)
  4. God will destroy this “lawless one” when Jesus comes (2Th 2:8)
  5. The “lawless one” will come with “all power, signs and false wonders” and deception (2Th 2:9-10)
  6. Many will be deceived in this interim time of testing, presumably by these signs (2Th 2:11-12)

So there you have it – Paul’s eschatology in a nutshell. He doesn’t say much about where or when this will take place but it is interesting to ask how he came to believe in this particular sequence of events? Was this something that the early church was expecting? Was it something predicated by OT prophecies? Was it a result of some personal revelation or a vision? Did Paul have some idea of who this “son of perdition” or “lawless one” might be? We can only speculate but we do not have the answers to these fascinating questions.

What, then, was Paul’s purpose in bringing up this eschatological explanation in chapter 2? It was to, ostensibly, console the Thessalonians in their present suffering, to draw their focus to a future escape from present pain. His point was made to them as follows:-

  1. You who are faithful, stay faithful and don’t give up (2Th 2:15)
  2. Though you suffer now, you have an everlasting consolation and hope (2Th 2:16)
  3. Pray that you will be delivered (things will get worse) (2Th 3:1-2)
  4. God is with you and will guard you (2Th 3:3)
  5. Be patient in your suffering and waiting for Christ’s return (2Th 3:5)

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that none of the Thessalonians lived to see Christ’s return or the immediate relief from their suffering and persecution. Things did get worse, much worse, before they got better. For Paul, a future hope was a good answer to present suffering – and that seems like a good enough reason for eschatological writing. The purpose was not to promise impending relief or salvation, or to predict the time of the return of Christ. Rather, it was to encourage faithfulness. It is interesting to note that it is often in the time of great turmoil and suffering that eschatological interest peaks.

In any case, Paul, being the pastor that he was, ended with practical advice:-

1. Stay away from “disorderly people (2Th 3:6,14 (NKJV)). The word that is translated “disorderly” here comes from the Greek word ἀτάκτως and is sometimes translated as “unruly” (NASB) or “idle” (NIV, ESV). This is a reference to those people who are just living off others and are not living industriously or productively (2Th 3:11). BDAG (Bauer-Danker lexicon) even suggests that these were religious persons (self-proclaimed religious leaders or pastors) who held services and fed off gullible Christians. Avoid those who keep asking for money or financial support. Basically avoid the scammers. (2Th 3:11-12)

2. Don’t give up. Persevere in following the faith and doing good. (2Th 3:13)

A very pragmatic approach to eschatology I should think and advice that still stands good for Christians today.

Three digits of intrigue 666: Rev 13:18

666, that’s the weight of gold in talents that entered into Solomon’s treasury annually (1Kgs 10:14). It was also the number of persons under Adonikam who had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubabbel (Ezra 2:13). But these numbers don’t grab our attention as it does in Revelations 13:18 where it is presented to us as the “number of the beast.” If ever there was fodder for speculation, this was it. And speculate we did. It’s like finding a Sudoku puzzle in the bible that is begging to be solved. Growing up as a Christian, I’ve given it a few attempts myself, not to mention the countless teachings and articles that I have read on the issue. So, what does this have to do with linguistics? Quite a lot, as it turns out, but let us begin with the text, Rev 13:18 (NKJV):-

Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.

I guess most of us secretly figure ourselves to be wise! The number 666 is just that in the Greek – ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ – six-hundred sixty six. No translational mystery there. Where it gets interesting is that some of the oldest manuscripts of Rev 13:18 (two extant manuscripts:P115 and P.Oxy. LVI4499, and two missing manuscripts but referred to by Irenaeus) actually read 616 instead of 666. Most of the manuscripts read 666. So why is this variant reading of any interest to us? And whose name could the Apostle John have encoded into that number, 666 or 616? (an 11th century manuscript actually reads 665!)

beast300

This is the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus (or P.Oxy.), the oldest fragment of this part of Revelations that we have. On the third line you can see the letters “XIC” which is the ancient Greek shorthand for 616.

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Well, fortunately for us, John had a disciple by the name of Polycarp. Known to us as a great martyr and bishop of Smyrna (circa. 150AD), he in turn had a disciple by the name of Irenaeus (mentioned earlier) who was quite a prolific writer and, fortunately for us, had written on the subject of 666. In his wok “Against Heresies”, Irenaues wrote (ANF, “Against Heresies”, Book V, Ch. XXX, 1.):-

Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end), — I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decades they will have it that there is but one.

What John’s grand-disciple was talking about here is the Hebrew practice of Gematria where a number is associated with each alphabet, enabling words to be converted into representative numbers. This practice was also applied to transliterated Greek (and Latin) words and that was, according to Irenaeus, what John was doing in the Apocalyse (Revelations.) So how does that work?

The emperor at that time was Nero, the madman, and his title was Nero Caesar. In Greek this would be Καισαρι Νερωνι (“kaisari Neroni”) which when transliterated into Hebrew can take several forms, just as it would when transliterated (not translated) into any language phonetically. One form is as follows:-

נרון קסר

*I should mention that the Hebrew word for Caesar is usually spelled with a “yud” or קיסר and the one used in the example above is a variant but a valid one. Jastrow’s dictionary of the Talmud (1926 ed., pg.1365), for example, lists both forms of spelling. Likewise, Nero is sometimes spelled with a trailing “nun” (n) as in “Neron” or without it. In many cases, the regular “nun” is used (=50) rather than the trailing/final “nun” form as written above (=700).

hebrew_alphabet-1965753-7-1458007575028

In the Gematria, the alphabets are numbered as “aleph” = 1, “bet” = 2, “gimel” = 3 and so on until 10, and then increases by tens until you reach a hundred, and then by the hundreds until you reach the last alphabet “tsadi” = 900. For the title נרון קסר you end up with the number 666. However, if you drop the trailing “n” and use “Nero” (typical of Latin) instead of “Neron”, your number adds up to 616. It is this peculiarity that suggests that the person behind the number is Nero. The earliest readers must have known this and altered the number to match their alternative spelling of his name, and thereby generating the alternative number 616 as found in some of the earliest extant manuscripts.

So, we identified the “beast”, it seems. Unfortunately, life is never that easy, is it? Given that most scholars believe that the book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of John) was written circa 90AD or later, it seems a little odd for John to refer to Nero who reigned between 54-68AD as the “beast”. The mystery remains!

Does the kingdom of God suffer violence?: Matt 11:12

Recently a friend asked me concerning a very interesting (and puzzling) verse of the bible found in the gospel according to Matthew, Matt 11:12. It’s a verse that we’ve no doubt read from time to time but if we were careful, we might have detected some difficulty with the flow of the verse – not least because it gets translated differently in different English versions:-
NKJV – And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
NASB – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.
NIV(2011) – From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,and violent people have been raiding it.
NRSV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
NET – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.
ESV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,4 and the violent take it by force.
 
I remember reading this verse as a young Christian and being rather perplexed by what it could possibly mean. In particular I was curious about who these “violent men” who were taking the kingdom of heaven by force might be. Were they “good” people whom we are to emulate? ie. Should we too take the kingdom by force? Or were they “bad” people that we should be on the lookout for? Either ways, the verse just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. I mean – how do you even go about taking an invisible kingdom by force?
 
To be sure, this is one of those verses that scholars debate over and translators agonise over. The problem stems from the word βιάζεται (biazetai) which is usually translated as “suffers violence”. The word “biazetai” means “to use force or violence”. The problem is that Greek verbs have different “voices” – the active, passive and what is called the middle voice (sometimes called the “aorist”). In English we are used to the active and passive voices. So “He will be killed” is a passive form of the verb “kill”. In English, the voice is determined by other parts of speech. In Greek, the voice is determined by the conjugation of the verb, in the same way that the tense in English is conjugated as part of the same word, eg. kill, killed, kills, killing. They’re all one word. So in Greek, you get one word “biazetai” (βιάζεται) and you will need to look at the conjugation to determine the voice, and hence the correct translation.
 
In this case, βιάζεται is the third person, singular, masculine, middle, indicative form. It is masculine because in the Greek, heaven is “masculine” so the verb associated with it is also masculine. It is the third person, for obvious reasons, when referring to the kingdom of heaven. The real problem comes when we get to the voice – the aorist middle voice. Middle voices are neither active nor passive, and is usually reflexive – acting on itself. In English, you might translate this literally as “the kingdom of heaven is violencing itself” – which is how many translators have translated it, more smoothly albeit. That, however, isn’t the only way of translating this. It is also possible to translate the reflexivity as “the kingdom of heaven is operating forcefully” [Rudolf Otto, “The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man”, pg.78], or as “the kingdom of heaven operates through force” [Reza Aslan, “Zealot”, pg.256]. These two translations are, for me, more sensible in the context of the passage.
 
The verse (Mt 11:12) says that since John the Baptist, which isn’t very long before Jesus said those words, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, or operating forcefully. (I prefer “spreading powerfully” here.) Some have chosen “suffers violence” in the light of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod Antipas (or Antipater). If so, the “violent men” are bad people who abuse God’s people. Fortunately for us, we have more than just one gospel. This same verse is reproduced for us in Luke 16:16:-
 
NKJV – The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.
NASB – The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.
NRSV – The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.
NET – The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.
 
Once you consider Lk 16:16, the “violent men” are clearly those who have responded to the preaching of the good news, rather than “bad people” like king Herod. If so, then Mt 11:12 should be translated more towards “advancing forcefully” or “operating with force/strength” as opposed to “suffers violence.” When Luke 16:16 used the same word “biazetai”, the context is that of people pressing into the kingdom of God forcefully, or “urged” as the NET translation puts it.
 
In summary – we have in Mt 11:12 a verse that talks about how since John the Baptist (the last of the OT prophets as implied in v.13-15) a new era has begun and people have been responding to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God in droves and, as a result, entering the kingdom of God in large numbers. This fits in well with the context of Mt 11:7-11. Jesus was trying to tell them that they have witnessed the fulfilment of the Malachi 4:5 and John had come to usher in a whole new era – the era of the good news of the kingdom of God. It’s not talking about “violent men” but those who are eagerly responding to the gospel described for us in Mt 3:5-6. Matthew, in particular, was trying to show how Jesus’ life fulfilled OT prophecies as the one that Isa 40:3 speaks of (see. Mt 3:1-3).
 
For what it’s worth, my interpretation of Mt 11:12:-
 
“John the Baptist marks the beginning of a new era of the kingdom that is spreading powerfully, through preaching of the good news and people are eagerly responding in droves, and entering the kingdom of heaven.”

More on translations (LXX): Luke 4:17

One of the things that happened when Jesus began his earthly ministry was his reading of Isaiah 61 in a synagogue setting. According to Luke 4:17 he was handed the scroll (not “book” as the Greek suggests) of Isaiah. He would have opened the scroll to the appointed parsha (the weekly appointed scripture reading) which fell on Isaiah 61. It would have been written in Hebrew, which Jesus could apparently read (not everyone could read in those days.) According to Luke’s account, this is what Jesus read (NASB):-
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed
 
We’ll ignore the fact that the reading stopped mid-verse in Isaiah 61:2 and look at what Luke reports for the first part that Jesus read, from Isaiah 61:1. When you turn to Isa 61:1, what you find is this:-
 
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
 
Hmmm… there seems to be some difference here that cannot be simply attributed to different ways of rendering the same text. In Luke’s account, there is missing the clause “bind up the brokenhearted” and includes an additional clause “recovery of sight to the blind.” In case you’re wondering, these differences are reflected in the Greek and Hebrew texts as well so it’s not a modern translational error.
 
What do we make of this discrepancy? Does it mean that the scroll Jesus was given to read was corrupted? Does it mean that our copy of Isa 61 is corrupted? The discrepancy is obviously there in the bible so we can’t ignore it or pretend there’s no problem there. As it turns out, there is a much better explanation for how this discrepancy came to be – well, a partial explanation anyway. Luke, as you may already know, was not a Jew and could not himself read Hebrew. Neither was he personally a disciple of Jesus. He followed Paul (who never really followed Jesus around as a disciple) and relied on the testimony of others to help him assemble the text for his gospel account (Lk 1:1-3).
 
So it is very likely that when he heard from witnesses that Jesus read from Isaiah 61, he would have heard either a verbal recount of the text of Isa 61:1-2a or was simply given a reference to the parsha that Jesus read. Being that he could not read Hebrew, he would naturally have relied on the LXX, something that we know he and Paul used a lot. So, what does the LXX’s account of Isaiah 61:1 say? [This is the Brenton English translation of the LXX Greek]:-
 
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor
To heal the broken in heart
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind;
 
Okay – now we’ve found where the “recovery of sight to the blind” clause came from. Most likely it wasn’t there in the Hebrew parsha that Jesus read but was in the LXX version of Isa 61:1 that Luke cited for his gospel account. Unfortunately the story isn’t that simple – I mean, when is it ever that simple? When you look at the LXX, you find that it includes “to heal the broken in heart” which, if he was citing the LXX directly, Luke decidedly left out. Now it appears that Luke didn’t even have access to the LXX text, which isn’t surprising because it’s not like you could just saunter into the library and pick up a copy of the LXX for reference. What Luke had was the verbal account of a Greek speaker telling of Jesus’ reading of the Isa 61 parsha, and then citing the LXX version of it from memory, and possibly leaving out a section of a rather long verse. Alternatively, Luke could have himself missed the clause while copying the citation. Even in comparing the three versions above, you can see how easy it is to skip a clause.
 
There are implications to this textual problem because the LXX version came to be included as part of “inspired” canonical text of Luke’s gospel. Does that make the LXX inspired even when it clearly differs from the Hebrew text? We also know that the Hebrew text is very reliable at this point because it is corroborated by 1QIsa Isaiah Scroll that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and dates back to 125BC, making it the one of the oldest extant bible manuscripts. Secondly, we can’t even get into why the LXX included the “recovery of sight” clause in a post like this, so let’s just put that aside.
 
What this tells us is that our whole idea of “inspiration” of the bible is rarely thought through carefully. The type of inspiration that is popularly held, what is sometimes known as “verbal plenary inspiration”, is pretty weak and leads to really poor understanding of the bible even if it appears very pious. It simply doesn’t take into account these types of problems and has a tendency to turn a blind eye or go into denial when confronted by textual issues. Simplistic answers are sometimes wrong answers.

Digging deeper into the text: Rev 22:14

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I tend to use both the NASB and the NKJV bibles and people were interested to know why. Well, they’re not the most perfect, for starters – I still read the Hebrew and Greek to check and make sure nothing fishy is going on in the translations. The two versions are quite good and reliable for the most part but the real reason I rely on them is because they represent the two major traditions of Greek manuscripts that are most commonly in use.
 
The NASB comes from the Wescott-Hort critical text that depends on the Alexandrian texts. The NKJV, on the other hand, comes from the Textus-Receptus that draws from the Byzantine texts. If you read Greek, you will likely use even more modern critical texts such as the Nestle-Aland or the Greek New Testament (UBS) which tends to combine both traditions. My purpose is not to discuss the different critical texts but to show you an example of why having two versions can be useful. The example I am using comes from Rev 22:14. If you look at Rev 22:14, you will find very different readings between the two traditions:-
 
NKJV – Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life …
NASB – Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life …
 
I think it doesn’t take a scholar to recognize that we have a problem here with texts that mean completely different things. To be sure, most of the verse are the same. It is only a very little portion where it says “do His commandments” vs. “wash their robes” that are different. So which is the correct version in this case? To appreciate how this problem came about, we will have to do a little CSI on the Greek text. The oldest Greek manuscripts were all written in uncials (all upper case letters). I am going to put the Greek versions side by side. TR is the Textus Receptus Greek that gave us the NKJV and TIS is the Tischendorf Greek (basically Alexandrian text) from which we get the NASB:-
 
TR – μακάριοι οἱ ποιοῦντες τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα ἔσται ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον τῆς ζωῆς …
TIS – μακάριοι οἱ πλύνοντες τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν, ἵνα ἔσται ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον τῆς ζωῆς …
I want you to notice that apart from the emboldened words, the verse is actually identical in the Greek. The problem of the variation comes only from the bracketed segments so we will look at this in a bit more detail. I reproduce just those words here in uncials, just as they would have been written in the earliest Greek manuscripts, along with the literal translation.
 
TR – ΠΟΙΟΥ͂ΝΤΕΣ ΤᾺΣ ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ ΑΥ̓ΤΟΥ͂ – do the commandments of his
TIS – ΠΛΎΝΟΝΤΕΣ ΤᾺΣ ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ ΑΥ̓ΤΩ͂Ν – wash the robes of theirs
 
Now, even if you may not understand Greek, I want you to see that the writing of those two sets of words are physically very similar. ΠΟΙΟΥ͂ΝΤΕΣ (do/perform) looks like ΠΛΎΝΟΝΤΕΣ (wash), and ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ (commands) looks like ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ (robes). You can probably guess where I am going with this now. Somebody either had really bad handwriting or bad eye-sight. Perhaps there was some damage to the original parchment at some point of the textual transmission that resulted in a corrupted copy. Some of the copyists couldn’t actually read – they simply copied the shapes as they saw it. The real question now is, “Which was the original reading?”
 
Well, Rev 7:14 has a similar phrase “washed their robes” which is rendered as ἔπλυναν τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν in the Greek (literal: washed the robes of-theirs). Notice how apart from the word στολὰς (stolas = robes), the word used for “washed” is completely different. Also Rev 22:14 was missing the 3rd person genitive pronoun αὐτῶν (of-theirs). In other words, the author was certainly capable of correctly rendering this text as he did in Rev 7:14. Somehow, he writes a much lower quality Greek in Rev 22:14. This sounds a tad suspicious but I can imagine a copyist trying to use 7:14 to make sense of 22:14 if the text was illegible or unclear in parts.
 
Textually, it is more likely for a longer text to be corrupted to a shorter text due to illegibility or damage. Between the two readings, the TR is longer and seems more likely to be corrupted towards a shortened version. From ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ to ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ requires the loss of the “N” alphabet and it is more likely for this to happen than for an “N” to be added accidentally.
 
The TR’s “do the commandments” seems to make more sense, especially given the reference in v.11 to the practice of righteousness and holiness. Two other times in the book of Revelations are there mention of “keep the commandments” and albeit a little different from “do the commandments”, still makes more sense than “wash the robes”. Without going into extensive CSI, my gut feeling is that the TR got this one right and the Alexandrian text (used in NASB, NIV, NET, NRSV, ESV, among others). In the previous post, we saw where the NKJV was wrong in the insertion of the Johannine Comma. In short – you win some and lose some. Sometimes NKJV wins, sometimes NASB wins, most of the time it’s a draw.
 
This is the reason for me to refer to both the NASB and the NKJV versions for study, as a way of checking the two major textual traditions for any discrepancies. By the way, the OT text has fewer such problems because it draws mainly from very complete and consistent texts – the Masoretic texts of the Leningrad Codex and the Aleppo Codex agree for the most part.
 
At this point, I’m not sure if you guys are sick of all the linguistic stuff. I can write more if you like but if you guys have had enough, I’ll stop here. If I do write, I think I’ll write something that involves the LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch. Let me know if you’re interested.

When the text is unclear: 1Sam 13:1

Translating ancient texts isn’t always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, the text itself can be so difficult you just don’t know what to do with it. A case in point is 1Sam 13:1 where the Hebrew text (R-to-L) says:-
 
בֶּן־שָׁנָ֖ה שָׁא֣וּל בְּמָלְכ֑וֹ וּשְׁתֵּ֣י שָׁנִ֔ים מָלַ֖ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
 
transliteration and word-for-word translation:-
 
ben_shanah Shaul b-malekh-o  v-shetei  shanim malakh   al_Israel
son-of_year  Saul    he-ruled       and-two years    (as)king  over_Israel
 
This text is difficult in several ways. First of all, the words “ben_shanah Shaul” seems to be incomplete and doesn’t really make sense. It seems to be saying “the year/age of Saul was …” but that’s where it just stops making sense. Secondly, the text says that Saul reigned for two years over Israel. [Acts 13:21 says that Saul reigned for 40-years] We know that the ark was lost to the Philistines (1Sam 4:1-18) before Saul started reigning as king, and it had ended up in Kirjath Jearim for 20-years (1Sam 7:2) before David brought it back to Jerusalem (2Sam 6:2). Therefore, by inference, Saul’s reign would have to have been less than 20-years. So now we have 2-years, 40-years, 42-years, and 20-years, plus the ambiguity in the text. What would you do?
 
Well, usually scholars would check the LXX at this point. The LXX (Roman numerals for 70), also known as the Septuagint (meaning 70 in Latin), was the (probably first proper) Greek translation for the OT that was made around the 3rd century BC. As the Greek empire expanded under Alexander the Great, Greek became a widely used language and eventually there were Jews who were more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew – just like how we have Singaporean Chinese who are more at home with English than Mandarin. So a translation was commissioned and because it was so early – it is sometimes useful as a way to reverse-engineering what their early copy of the Hebrew text might have said. Of course, you’d have to understand Koine-Greek to read it.
 
So what did the LXX say about 1Sam 13:1? Well, haha – they left it out completely! The translators probably had so much difficulty with it, they simply left it out. So there is no 1Sam 13:1 in the LXX, just 1Sam 13:2 onwards. Great. That’s not really helpful to us. It also doesn’t help that the DSS (Dead Sea Scrolls) 4Q51 parchments are missing the whole of 1Sam 13 so that’s another dead-end.
 
So what did our modern translators do with this text? Let’s see:-
 
NKJV – Saul reigned one year, and when he had reigned two years over Israel …
NASB – Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned forty-two years over Israel.
NIV – Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.
JPSS – Saul was … years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years.
NET – Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign; he ruled over Israel for forty years.
NRSV – Saul was … years old when he began to reign; and he reigned … and two years over Israel.
ESV – Saul lived for one year and then became king, and when he had reigned for two years over Israel …
 
It’s amazing how many translators felt the need to inject information into the text – the difficulty of the text not-withstanding. You can also see how the different translators struggled to make sense of the text. I guess sometimes you just can’t win! At least in this case, it didn’t result in deeply held doctrinal positions as in the previous two examples.
 
Happy National Day Singapore!

When Translators Theologise: Gen 14:20b

Following my previous rant on Mal 2:16, there were people who asked which translation would be best. While there are no perfect translations, I tend to use both NKJV and the NASB as they tend to be generally quite faithful to the Hebrew text. I avoid dynamic translations such as The Message, NIV, NLT, GNB due to their limited value for study purposes. One example of this would be in the translation of Gen 14:20b:-
 
NKJV – … and he gave him a tithe of all
NASB – … he gave him a tenth of all
 
but the other translations say:-
 
NIV – … Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything
JPSS – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
NET – … Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything
NRSV – … And Abram gave him one tenth of everything
ESV – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
 
The Hebrew text for this bit actually reads (from right to left):-
וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל
 
the transliteration and word for word translation:-
v-yitten_l-o                  ma’aser  me-kol
and-he-gave_to-him  tenth       of-all
 
The first problem you can already see is that there are no names in the text. No “Abram” and certainly no “Melchizedek”. The translators of NIV, JPSS, NET, NRSV, ESV took the liberty of inserting those names in order to make the text say things a certain way. But did they get it wrong in spite of their good (theological) intentions?
 
Secondly. If you read Gen 14:18-20 to get the full context, you will discover that this entire section was about Melchizedek doing things to Abram.
 
v.18 – we see that Melchizedek was the main actor – bringing out bread and wine.
v.19 – we see that he (Melchizedek) blessed him (Abram) with words that are contextually incontrovertible
v.20 – is a continuation of v.19 with Melchizedek as the main actor.
v.20b – this should simply be a continuation of everything else with Melchizedek giving Abram a tenth of all
 
If all you had was this text, this would be how you would have read it. There would be no way you would suddenly turn around and say that Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything just as you wouldn’t interpret v.19 as Abram blessing Melchizedek. What is going here is that the translators were looking at Hebrew 7:2 which said that Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, and then decided to alter the translation of Gen 14:20b to make the text agree with Hebrew 7:2. In other words, they’re no longer translating here, but theologising because the plain text was inconvenient and disturbing in its implications. At the very least, if the context wasn’t clear – just leave it the way NKJV and NASB did, without taking the liberty to inject an interpretation that isn’t found in the original text.
 
So the question is – what do you do when the text says something inconvenient? Should translators smooth it out by injecting their own interpretation to avoid any textual difficulties? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that word for word translations are the way to go. Far from it. All good translations require contextual understanding. The problem with this and other examples is that the translators were authoring stuff that did not exist in the text, nor was what the text meant. They probably represented the prevailing theology of the day and/or desired to avoid theologically difficult translations.
 
Once again, I’m not addressing the question of Hebrew 7:2. I’m simply pointing out examples of where translators go amuck, and why I tend to stick to NKJV and NASB. Why two versions? That’s a story for another post if anyone’s interested.

Midnight Linguistic Rant: Malachi 2:16

One of the problems with English translations is that you have to take the word of the translators for what the Hebrew (or Greek) text of the bible says, and sometimes they get it so so so wrong. Worse yet, they get it wrong in ways that result in entrenched doctrinal positions. The case in point here is the text of Malachi 2:16
 
NKJV says “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce …”
NASB and NRSV says “For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel …”
NET bible says “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel …”
JPS says “For I detest divorce – said the LORD, the God of Israel …”
 
Now, if you looked at all these versions – you’d pretty much come to the conclusion that God hates divorce, and who can blame you for it. All the English translations here seem to be saying exactly that.
 
But when you look at the Hebrew text, this is what it actually says:-
כִּֽי־שָׂנֵ֣א שַׁלַּ֗ח אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
[Note that Hebrew reads right to left.] Translated literally and word for word, it actually reads as follows:-
 
ki_sane               shalach  amar  YHWH elohei     Israel
“for_he-hates divorce” says   YHWH God (of) Israel
 
The operative word here is “sane” which is the third-person masculine verb for “hate”, ie. “he hates”. It is significant that while this was God speaking in the first person, he does not use a first person verb such as “seneti” which would have been correctly translated “I hate”. This means that God wasn’t referring to himself hating divorce here, but was referring to someone else who hated divorce.
 
Who was this person? If you look at the context of Malachi 2 as a whole, you will notice that God was addressing errant priests who had corrupted the covenant of Levi. They misled the people. This person dealt treacherously with the wife of his youth, a wife by covenant.
 
Even though he has gone off gallivanting with other women, he had not released his wife properly through divorce. It was this refusal to release his wife. Judah had run off with the daughter of a foreign God even though he was in covenant with God not to do so. Yet he pretends to still be “married” to God. This was the “treachery” of Judah (Mal 2:11 NKJV). So when the narrative comes to Mal 2:16, God was referring to this person saying that “he refused/hated divorce” even though that was the right thing to do for his wife given his treachery.
 
Why doesn’t he want to divorce his wife by covenant? Because he would be obliged to ensure that she is properly compensated if he divorced her. By not divorcing the wife, the poor woman is left neither here nor there, unloved by the husband and yet bound to an unfaithful man.
 
Now, I am not trying to make a case about divorce here. I’m just pointing out how bad some of the English translations can be – leading to completely different (and distorted) readings of the original text. Why can’t the translators just translate the text directly????!!!