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 that 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.

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!)


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.


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).


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!

What’s in a name?: 1Chr 8:33

King Saul had four sons (and two daughters), we’re told in 1Chr 8:33. Jonathan we’re most familiar with but there’s also Malchi-shua, Abinadab (a.k.a. Ishvi or Jishui – 1Sam 14:49) and Ishbaal (a.k.a. Ishbosheth – 2Sam 2:8). 1Sam 14:49 leaves out Ishbaal for some reason when listing the sons of Saul, which is somewhat interesting considering that he (sort of) succeeded the throne of Saul (2Sam 2:10) while David was taking over. So why was his name left out?

The name Ishbaal (אֶשְׁבָּֽעַל) comes from two Hebrew root words – “Ish” meaning “man”, and “Baal” which is sometimes translated “Lord” (or “husband” since the husband was traditionally the lord over the house) but is a carry-over from Canaanite pagan worship. It literally means “man of Baal”. Historically, as a result of syncretism among the Israelites, Baal has come to be used more generally as a term for God. (It might be of some interest that the word “adonai” has also been used to refer to Babylonian gods such as Marduk.) We see “Baal” used quite commonly such as in the names of places used to commemorate an act of God – “Baal of Peor” (Num 25:3), “Baal Perazim” (2Sam 5:20) being two examples.

In any case, “Baal” was the proper name for one of the Phonecian gods, sometimes identified with Molech, which was widely worshipped in the Levant. The Israelites were frequently drawn into Baal-worship, such as in Judges 8:33 (NKJV):-

So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god.

Over time, there was some confusion as to the usage of the term and that was how it came about that “Baal” was used to refer to YHWH when they were in fact two separate names altogether. This distinction was lost to the masses since the time of the Judges and so it comes as no surprise that Saul named one of his sons “Man of Baal” or Ishbaal.

Now it is believed that some of the scribes who were loyal to YHWH found it a great offence that the name of “Baal” was so used so when they recorded the history, they swapped out “Baal” with “bosheth” (בָ֨שְׁתְּ) meaning “shame”. Thus Ishbaal became Ishbosheth, the “man of shame”.  In the same way, Jonathan’s son, Meribaal (1Chr 8:34) which means “Baal my advocate”, was changed by the writers of Samuel to Mephibosheth (2Sam 4:4, 9:6)  which means “from the mouth of shame”. This probably explains why Ishbaal’s name was omitted 1Sam 14:49.

What we learn is that the scribes and editors of some of the books took it upon themselves to make some alterations to reflect their concerns even as they recorded the events. Obviously Ishbaal and Meribaal would not have been given alternate names by Saul and Jonathan, respectively. This suggests that when we read some of these accounts, we have to allow for the fact that the human writers of scripture play a big role in the text itself. This is another reason why notions of literal inspiration just doesn’t work terribly well. It is just as well that these alterations were made because it turns out that YHWH was no fan of being called “Baal”. Hosea 2:17 (NKJV) reads:-

For I will take from her mouth the names of the Baals,
And they shall be remembered by their name no more.

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, 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.”

The rope that broke the camel’s back: Matt 19:24

Okay, I know I made a “concluding rant” but this was too interesting (and it has Aramaic too!) to leave out so bear with me for just one more short rant. This one comes from Matt 19:24 (and also Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25). The NKJV reads:-
“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
I have read some suggestions that the “eye of a needle” might be referring to a small door by the main gate to allow a man through at night when the gates are closed. Supposedly, the door is so small that you would have to shed all your baggage just to squeeze through and a camel would have a hard time getting in. Nice try. Unfortunately no such “eye of the needle” doors have been found in the walls of Jerusalem and certainly none that are so named, so strike that one out.
Still, we have to admit that the idea of a camel going through the eye of a needle is a rather awkward metaphor. That’s like saying, “This bag is as heavy as a a forest.” You know – the metaphor doesn’t really work because of the lack of obvious connection between the principal subjects. So what’s going on here? Why “camel”? Well, we do have a very compelling explanation for this that comes from the fact that Jesus probably taught in Aramaic or Hebrew. The above verse would have been rendered as such (Aramaic/Syriac: R-to-L):-
ܬܘܒ ܕܝܢ ܐܡܪ ܐܢܐ ܠܟܘܢ. ܕܦܫܝܩ ܗܘ ܠܓܡܠܐ ܕܢܥܒܪ ܒܚܪܘܪܐ ܕܡܚܛܐ. ܐܘ ܠܥܬܝܪܐ ܠܡܠܟܘܬܐ ܕܫܡܝܐ.
That’s just for you to see what Aramaic script looks like. The word “camel” is the 8th word in the sentence ܓܐܡܠܐ (I left out the preposition for clarity) and reads as “gamlo” which means “camel”. There is another Aramaic word that sounds very close to this. The word ܓܐܡܠܥ (Aramaic:gamla) meaning “rope” according to Mar Bahlul, a 10th century Aramaic lexicographer. In George Lamsa’s Peshitta (Aramaic bible) translation, the word “rope” is used in place of “camel”.
At the same time, the Greek word for “camel”, κάμηλον (Greek:kamilon) is also somewhat similar to the Greek word for “rope”, κάμιλος (Greek:kamilos) although this usage is very rare (see BDAG: κάμιλος.) Cyril of Alexandria (376-444AD) insisted that it should have been “rope” instead of “camel.” (This can be found in his work: Fragment 219.) In fact, there are some post 10th century manuscripts of the gospels that have “rope” instead of “camel”, which makes a bit more sense as a metaphor.
These are all speculative, of course. The point is that just one little stroke of the pen, one vowel, can completely change the metaphor. Just because a metaphor is awkward does not, however, mean that there is a textual problem. It may just be that the original context may have been lost and we no longer understand it as it was meant to be understood. Fortunately for us, in this case – whether it was a camel or a rope, the meaning is not lost to us – it’s just a very hard thing to do enter through that eye of a needle.

Beyond Linguistics – Those pesky books: The book of Jasher

We should be aware that scripture does not stand as an island in the literary world. Every now and then we discover bridges across to other extra-canonical texts. In the past we have seen how extra-canonical translations and texts can contribute to canonical texts but what about entire books? A case in point is Joshua 10:13 (and 2Sam 1:18) where a certain “Book of Jasher” is referenced, a book that we do not find as part of the OT canon. So what exactly is contained in this (סֵ֣פֶר הַיָּשָׁ֑ר) “Book of Jasher”?
We know that the book actually existed at some point and was in wide use as it was referenced in other texts such as the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah, the Legend of the Jews, and other rabbinic works.
It turns out that there are quite a few claimants to this title, not to mention quite a few forgeries. Some of the supposed Hebrew manuscripts for Jasher have been floating around since the 1800’s, purportedly acquired in Spain and India. While it would be impossible to discuss the merit and provenance of the manuscripts, I happen to have the English translation of one such manuscript which proved to be rather fascinating.
You’d probably be curious to know what the book contains. It does contain the expanded account of the day the sun stood still (Jasher 88:63-64), as referred to in Josh 10:13, as well as the use of the bow (Jasher 56:9) referenced by 2Sam 1:18. Further to that it actually contains details of “Jannes and Jambres” who opposed Moses as mentioned in 2Tim 3:8-9. Paul assumes common knowledge of these two characters who aren’t mentioned anywhere else in the bible. (According to the book, they were the two sons of Balaam, the magician in Pharaoh’s court that Moses confronted.)
This so-called Book of Jasher (henceforth referred to as simply “Jasher”) consists mainly of parallel accounts of Genesis, Exodus and parts of Joshua. What makes it exceptionally interesting is that the accounts furnish a lot of details not found in Genesis (and the other books) itself – some of which offers rather interesting explanations to otherwise rather puzzling narratives. I say “so-called” because the authenticity of the book cannot be ascertained and there are a handful of inconsistencies here and there. As a whole, however, the text seems fairly credible so take this for what it’s worth. While I cannot reproduce the entire book here, I can provide some interesting examples to give you an idea of what the book contains.
For example, in Gen 19:26 we are told that Lot’s wife “looked back behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” I suppose all of us have at some point wondered at the severity of the consequence, and also on why Lot’s wife had looked back. The bible itself doesn’t offer any more details than this but the parallel account in Jasher does. Jasher 19:52-53 reads:-
“And he [the Lord] overthrew these cities, all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground; and Ado the wife of Lot looked back to see the destruction of the cities, for her compassion was moved on account of her daughters who remained in Sodom, for they did not go with her. And when she looked back she became a pillar of salt, and it is yet in that place unto this day.”
* square brackets are my comments
Well, now we know her name – Ado. And it seems that she looked back out of concern for her daughters. This is an example of the kind of additional detail that could be found in Jasher. This same kind of elaboration can be found for many of the Genesis accounts – though nothing that contradicts the basic biblical narratives. Another elaboration that’s of some interest is the background of Abram’s life and his relationship with his father Terah. Jasher 11 has the account. Here are some excerpts:-
(11:19-20) And Abram asked his father, saying, Father, tell me where is God who created heaven and earth, and all the sons of men upon earth, and who created thee and me. And Terah answered his son Abram and said, Behold those who created us are all with us in the house. [referring to his idols] And Abram said to his father, My lord, shew them to me I pray thee; and Terah brought Abram into the chamber of the inner court, and Abram saw and behold the whole room was full of gods of wood and stone, twelve great images and others less than they without number.
(11:29-33) And Abram took the savory meat from his mother, and brought it before his father’s gods into the chamber, and he came nigh unto them that they might eat, and he placed it before them, and Abram sat before them all day, thinking perhaps they might eat. And Abram viewed them, and behold they had neither voice nor hearing, nor did one of them stretch forth his hand to the meat to eat. And in the evening of that day in that house Abram was clothed with the spirit of God. And he called out and said, Woe unto my father and this wicked generation, whose hearts are all inclined to vanity, who serve these idols of wood and stone which can neither eat, smell, hear nor speak, who have mouths without speech, eyes without sight, ears without hearing, hands without feeling, and legs which cannot move. Like them are those that made them and that trust in them. And when Abram saw all these things his anger was kindled against his father, and he hastened and took a hatchet in his hand, and came unto the chamber of the gods, and he broke all his father’s gods.
You get a sense of the drama and Abram really comes to life as a character in Jasher. There are lots more such elaborations in the book but you get the idea. If nothing else, it’s really fun reading. On a more serious note, these details are consistent with the Canaanite idol worship practices of the day and are entirely credible.
So there you go – is this THE “Book of Jasher”? I couldn’t say but if it is, it sure offers some interesting insights. Sure beats playing PG!!! Haha.

Those additional words: Deut 6:5

The LXX translators faced the same sort of challenges that confront modern day bible translators. There are times when a literal word-for-word translator was felt to insufficiently convey the full meaning of the word and in the attempt to better convey their understanding of the particular word, they may insert elaborations into the text. While there may be some benefits to this, it can also have unintended consequences in the longer term when contexts have changed from when the translators worked.
Today we look at one of the most famous verses in the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5. Part of the “Shema” prayer that almost every Jewish adult and child would know, this part reads:-
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ
The transliteration and word-for-word translation is as follows:-
v’ahavta et YHWH eloekha b’kol levav’kha u’b’kol nefsh’kha u’b’kol meod’kha
and-you-shall-love YHWH your-god in-all your-heart and-in-all your-soul and-in-all your-strength
The translation is very straightforward and unambiguous. However, when you look at Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27 where Deut 6:5 is quoted, you will see all kinds of variations that do not accurately reflect the Hebrew text for Deut 6:5. From the NKJV:-
Mt 22:37 – … you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. …
Mk 12:30 – … and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. …
Lk 10:27 – … You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. …
One explanation might be that Jesus or the gospel writers weren’t particular about accuracy in their citations of scripture – which seems a little unlikely give how well known this particular verse is. Almost any Jew could have quoted it directly without error. We might have some explanation for Matt 22:37 in that the Hebrew manuscript for Matthew (known as the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew – but let’s not get into the provenance of this text) actually provides a more accurate citation.
What the three gospel citations have in common, though, is the inclusion of the words “all your mind” which is not found in the Hebrew text. Where did this come from?
If you guessed the LXX, you were right. The LXX (Brenton English translation) reads:-
LXX-B – And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and all thy strength.
It turns out that some versions of LXX (yes, there are variants) use the Greek word διάνοιαν (Greek:dianoian = “understanding” or “mind”) instead of καρδίας (Greek:kardias = “heart”) to translate לְבָבְ (Hebrew:levav = “heart”). Some translators probably felt that “understanding” or “mind” was a better translation for “heart” – ie: we should love God with all our understanding or mind. Inevitably there were some people quoting the “heart” version and others who quoted the “mind” version. For this reason, it isn’t surprising that after a period of time, there was some confusion as to which word should be used and Mark probably decided to include both in Mk 12:30:-
NKJV – … and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. …
In other cases, “mind” was combined with “soul” or “strength”. It looked like there was a lot of confusion in how this verse was quoted in the Greek. The exegetical intricacies of these issues would take far more than FB posts could cover so I’ll just leave it at this point. Again, we have to remember that it wasn’t easy to get your hands on biblical text back in those days and oral transmission was the main method by which information was passed along. Most people could not really read or write either as there was no mandatory education in those days.
I should also add that in the Hebrew, there is no separate word for “mind”. In 2Sam 7:3, for example, the word translated as “mind” is in fact לְבָבְ (Hebrew:levav = “heart”). While the Greek has separate words for heart and mind, Hebrew only has one word and it is therefore very unlikely that Jesus would have actually said “mind” separately from “heart” given that he probably spoke Aramaic or Hebrew rather than Greek.
What we learn here is that translations can help shed light on the meaning of a word – the heart is for pumping blood and the mind is for understanding. To love God with all our heart is, per the LXX translators, simply a metaphorical way of saying that we should love God with our understanding and mind, as opposed to how modern readers mind think to love God with our (heart) emotions. At the same time, we also see that textual transmission cannot escape the imperfections of the human hands that put the information into writing. The gospel writers had to make some decisions about which was the best citation based on what was available to them, and not on perfect sources. This really forces us to reconsider the popular (but deeply flawed) views of verbal plenary inspiration of the bible.
Of course, what’s most important in the end is to keep Deut 6:5! With all you’ve got regardless of translators or translations.

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.

Are translations inspired?: Gen 4:8

Translations are inevitable when it comes to the bible, and they’ve been around for a very long time – even during the time of Jesus and earlier. But are these translations inspired? The question is actually a little more complicated than it initially appears. Take Gen 4:8 as an example of this complication:-
NKJV – Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field …
NASB – Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field …
NIV – Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field …
JPS – Can said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field ..
NET – Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field …
NRSV – Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And they were in the field …
ESV – Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field …
You’ll notice, right off the bat, that some versions have extra details: “Let’s go out to the field”, while others don’t. Why is this so and what does the Hebrew text say (R-to-L)?
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה …
The transliteration and word-for-word translation is:-
v’yomer Cain al_Hevel achiu … v’yehi b’heyotem b’sadeh …
and said Cain to_Abel his-brother … and-it-was(that) they-were-together in-the-field …
In the Hebrew, it is actually quite clear that something is missing in the text because it says “And Cain said to Abel his brother” which would normally be followed by the content of the speech. In this case, nothing is given and the verse moves right on to another part where they were already in the field. This begs the question, “but what did Cain say to Abel?” The Hebrew text here doesn’t provide it.
If you were reading the NKJV or the ESV, you wouldn’t have suspected that anything was missing because the translators deliberately mistranslated יֹּ֥אמֶר (yomer) which means “said” into the intransitive verbs “talked” and “spoke” which did not require content to be provided, thus obscuring the problem from readers. The NASB was a little better but still mistranslated the word. Had they used “said” like how the JPS did, it would have become more obvious that something was missing.
So how did the NIV(2011), NET and NRSV come up with the missing content, “Let’s go out to the field”? Well, they looked to the LXX and the Samaritan Torah/Pentateuch for it. As I have earlier explained, the LXX is a relatively early Greek translation of the Hebrew bible that is especially valuable since the copies of the Masoretic Text from which we get the Hebrew of the OT dates to 8th century AD at the earliest. The LXX relied on much earlier Hebrew manuscripts (pre-3rd century BC). The Samaritan Torah is an independently maintained Hebrew Pentateuch (first 5-books of the bible) with many variations and some textual corruptions but generally attested ancient source. In both these sources, the LXX and the ST, the missing bits can be found.
Now we have a situation where the canonical Hebrew text is clearly missing bits that can be out in extra-canonical translations and texts, the LXX and the ST. The question is – should we consider those missing bits “inspired” and add those external data back into the canonical texts, knowing that they were not part of the canonical manuscripts as received in the first place? If so, should we consider the LXX an inspired translation? What do you think?
This just goes to show that our understanding of “inspired” is usually too unsophisticated and simplistic. In most cases, our doctrines of inspiration isn’t even biblically founded in the first place but it doesn’t bother most people because of the general ignorance of the textual issues. Of course, ignorance has never stopped people from zealously crusading for doctrines and positions that they themselves don’t fully understand.
p.s. Think about this but don’t reach a conclusion too quickly – there will be other LXX curiosities in the next post (or two.)
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