Dying and death

When I was in my twenties, a random adult Bible class ended up on a rabbit trail¹ about death.  I commented that I was not afraid of death but was afraid of dying.  An intelligent, hardened woman in her early 50s looked at me cross-ways across the table, apparently annoyed by the distinction I drew. 

My thoughts were not changed by the woman’s glare, and they have not really been altered since.  I still do not fear the death state, and I’m still afraid of dying . . . yet it depends on how the dying occurs and how long it lasts. 

Will there be long-term pain?  Morphine? 
Will there be aloneness or memories shared with friends?
Will there be recovery through the miracles of modern medicine, followed by worsening conditions? 

I hear about intense pain, and I have my own sporadic pain.  When I see stories on Netflix that involve physical pain,² I sometimes wonder how I will die.  Despite impressive storytelling and videographic techniques, though, a certain distance exists between TV/movies and real life.  Last fall, when my father was hospitalized for a month and then died, I thought with new intensity about pain and “palliative care,” hospice care, dying, and death.  I haven’t spent enough time with medical ethics and philosophy to gain the right to delve too deeply here, but I might just delve anyway.

Since the first humans, death has been a part of life on this terrestrial ball.

Both mystery and science are involved in death.

Some may fear (or be “spooked” by) death, whereas others may take death almost stoically in the course of medical duty.

Some may irrationally live as though death will never occur, and others may rationally long for it.

I take death as not-final, but, clearly, there is a final aspect to it.

Often, when I leaf through a local newspaper, I notice the death announcements.  Is there anyone I know, or a relative or friend of someone I know?  Whose funeral is going to take a coworker out of the office?  Funerals and other memorial events help the living to acknowledge and process the passing of those they have known and loved.  Here, in a brief post, I shared a thank-you note from a family acquaintance after my mother and I attended a funeral for his mother.  This is but one indication of the meaning that funerals can have.  Funerals, of course, are not for the dead but for the living.  Funerals are a common feature of existence, but they do not always have the same “personality” or viable connection to God and the eternal.

I’ve been to some really good funerals in my days, and I’ve seen programs from others that were probably just as good.  During my college days, significant funerals included Lou’s and my grandfather’s.³  Years later, a funeral in SE Tennessee honored Kathryn, who was something of a mentor to my parents; another memorialized the father of Carolyn, an even closer friend for more years.  I distinctly remember the casketed bodies of good people like Sybil, Bob, and Henry.  I’ve had the honor of contributing to funeral music in song (leading and/or singing) for probably three or four dozen funerals.  All told, for three+ decades or so, I figure I gained a pretty good sense of one type of church funeral.  Among the top ten funerals of my life (an odd phrase, I know) occurred last fall, effectively beginning a new focus on death for me.  Among the best elements of this memorial time was the minister’s message.4  He apologized only briefly for reading the entire raising-Lazarus pericope (John 11), following that with “but it’s worth it” . . . and proceeding to show not only effective oral reading but also good insight.

The oh-so-human narrative of John 11 is quite provocative and “real.”  The minister made mention of multiple, real-life aspects that might be ignored by the casual reader.  For instance, the grave did stink, just as Martha predicted it would.  (Such facts can escape those of us who are more comfortable with theology and/or churchianity than with living in the shadow of the Rabbi.)  It was doubtless a horrible odor.  It was death inside that tomb—a tomb I have supposedly seen personally, according to the tourist-targeted sign (but I don’t hang my hat on the sign’s veracity).  Imagination and thoughts about the story run wild.  This was a very special relationship, and it shows not only Jesus’ human connections but the Son of God’s divine power.  For my money, the Lazarus5 story is more apropos of funerals and memorials than Psalm 23 or the notion of “many mansions.”  In John 11 the reader finds a belief in resurrection and life that meets even the deepest, most personal grief where it sighs.  Actually, such belief does better than meeting grief.  It ascends from human grieving with hope.

I am always, always stimulated and enriched by spending even the tiniest amount of focused time in any one of the gospels.  I know a good deal more about Mark and Matthew than Luke, but not nearly enough about any of the gospels.  There will always be more riches to mine!  John seems more philosophical to me than the others, even as it simply encourages belief in the incarnate One.  It makes sense, then, that John’s thoughts of life and death would draw me in.  I note that Mark’s gospel uses the word “life” 4x; Matthew, 7x, and Luke, 5x.  By way of comparison, John’s gospel uses ζωή | zoe—the word typically translated “life”—36 times (spread throughout, in 11 different chapters, from 1 to 20).  This word count alone suggest at least a motivic, if not thematic, focus within John’s particular gospel portrait.  (The word “death” is used almost the same number of times in each of the four canonical gospels.)  Surely, along with an appropriate consciousness of death can also come a deeper awareness of eternal life.

During the next few weeks, I want to offer various thoughts about death and dying.  My thoughts range from the preeminence of the Kingdom of God to the Hippocratic oath, and from euthanasia to the Passion of Jesus, and from life insurance to music.  I would be honored to hear from readers on this topic, as well.

Find other posts on death and dying here, beginning with my father’s death notice here and a tribute to caregivers here.

¹ Such meanderings can be rewarding, instructive, and memorable, but they occur too often when the stated goal is “Bible study.” 

² I do avoid “action” films built around gratuitous violence.

³ It was reported, in connection with my grandfather’s death, that his last words were “Lord Jesus, be merciful.”  Such a statement strikes me as an entirely appropriate utterance.  I imagine the words as something of a humble reflex born out of lifelong devotion, not a desperate prayer.  If nothing else, an appeal to Jesus shows faith.

This is a remarkable statement me to make, really, given my general aversion to formalized ministerial roles.

5 Lazarus, by the way, is one very strong candidate for the title of “the one Jesus loved,” and also a candidate for having written at least portions of this gospel we know as “John.”



Interesting translation questions in Philemon 6-10

In returning to Philemon for two different purposes lately, I’ve been engaged again in the deep study of this absolute gem of a letter.  I’ve been reworking my own translation basted on expanded knowledge and senses of the letter as a whole.  Below are some translation-oriented matters that have particularly intrigued me in Philemon verses 6-10:

6 – The expression “partnership/fellowship of faith”—which has so many possibilities that it can make your head spin.  At issue here are the numerous ways to understand the genitive case of the noun “pistis,” most often translated “faith”—and also the range of meaning of both nouns individually.  “Partnership” (koinonia) can also be “fellowship” or even “contribution.”  Although financial concepts do appear in this short letter to Philemon, I rather feel the sense here is more strongly tied to joint effort.  I am aware, for instance, of the notable greetings and concluding phrases about fellow-workers and fellow-prisoner.  The primary sense of the word “koinonia” here is the work together, the partnership.

Although I am intensely aware th ese days of the NT word “pistis,” insofar as I can tell, I did not come to this passage with a prejudice over whether “pistis” implies mental assent, trust, fidelity (or some combination of the three) in this passage.   For the present, however, I’ve ended up with the translation “faithful partnership,” which does lean in an atypical direction, along the lines of author Matthew Bates’s suggestions.  (See this post on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog for more on Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone and the translation of πιστις | pistis.) 

6 – The beginning of v6.  Just before the expression “partnership” and “faith” appears the word “hopos.”  The import of this word is a trifle difficult to narrow down.  Traditionally, the words “I pray” have been supplied by translators.  (One must supply something in order to have the verse make sense in English.)  “I pray that …” is not the only possibility, however.  “Hopos,” the lead word, is not nearly as common as its cousins “hina” and “hoti,” which head many clauses in Greek, and which usually mean something along the lines of “in order that” or “because.”  The question here is whether “hopos” serves more of an adverbial function (how the next thing relates to the former) or a conjunctive one (joining the two in a different way).

In the BDAG lexicon, a conjunctive sub-type is proposed as a possible fit for Philemon 6.  In this sub-type, the word “hopos” essentially replaces an understood infinitive.  Accepting this possibility, and reaching back to include the main verb in v4, one comes out with

“I thank God …, (v4)
hearing of your love …, (v5)
and I want to ask that….” (v6)

Why not simply stick with the traditional understanding that Paul is continuing his prayer in v6?  Well, because I suspect Paul is moving toward asking something of Philemon instead of God here, and he might be intentionally engaging in a bit of ambiguity.  Supplying a verb such as “to ask” can leave both possibilities open.

6 – The word “epignosei.”  This word can mean knowledge or full knowledge but seems in the context of Philemon to move in the direction of recognition or awareness of “every good thing.”  This expression is used twice in the letter—intentionally so, I’m persuaded.

7 – The word “splangxna.”  This interesting word is most often translated “heart,” and it is discursively significant within the Philemon document.  The thing is, this is a plural word, and it’s exclusively used in the plural in the NT.  Clearly, though, it cannot be translated “hearts” in many instances.  At issue here in Philemon are both linguistic and psychological concerns, i.e., how the ancients and we understand the source of human emotions.  The King James had “bowels,” which does a nice job with the plural but is obviously ill-advised in our age.

Personally, I’m moving away from “heart”—or I want at least to consider something different—because I feel that “heart” has been co-opted, becoming a kind of Christianese slang that could lead a reader down a rabbit trail instead of communicating to us what Paul was communicating to Philemon.  I am wondering about translating the plural word splangxna (which, by the way, I understand is diachronically etymologically connected to the English word “spleen”) as “affections.”  In Philemon, we would have

  • “the affections of the saints have been refreshed through you” (7)
  • “I am sending him back to you—the object of my (brotherly) affections” (12)
  • “revive my affections in Christ” (20)

At this moment, I like the “affections” option in v7 and v20, but not so much in v12, because it’s hard to make that phrase sound non-homosexual in English these days.  If we leave v12 as “heart” while rendering the other instances otherwise, though, the verbal connection is lost in the English translation.

7/8 – The parallel use of the verb “exo.”  This verb means “to have” and which appears in two distinct tenses in versus 7 and 8.  Regardless of the particular type of of aorist Paul intended in v7, the present participle form of this same verb in v8 seems to indicate some measure of heightened emphasis.  In other words, his saying “I have great boldness to command you” is stronger in some way than “I have great joy and consolation” above.

9 – The unusual (to me, at least) sequencing of words ὢν ὡς (ōn hōs). I think this expression is idiomatic.  The two words are (1) a being verb and (2) a particle of some kind—a conjunction, or a preposition, or an adverbial particle.  Taken together, we might translate “ōn hōs Paulos” simply as “This is I, Paul.”  In the mid-range context, Paul appears to be revealing himself, or self-identifying, as an old man and a prisoner—all for the sake of influencing Philemon’s future behavior.

9 – The word “presbutes,” often translated “elder” or “old man.”  “Presbutes” is used only twice in Paul’s extant writings.  Once in Luke makes a total of three instances in the NT.  I wondered whether the RSV rendering “ambassador” might be a viable one in Philemon 9.  A cognate of “presbutes” is used in Eph. 6:20, also juxtaposed with the prison (a different word for “chains” there than in Philemon).  The range of meaning of “presbutes” in non-NT literature does include “ambassador.”  Still, I’m not persuaded that it means “ambassador” here.

10 – A verb that roughly means “to become the father of”  How can gennao be translated in a way that comes across both smoothly and meaningfully in English?  Is “became my son” (switching the agency from the producer to the one produced, and converting the verb to a passive sense) sufficient to do Paul’s expression justice?

Parts and passages

Parts & passages are two exciting factors in my life.

There are few things that energize me like working with musical parts for ensemble music-making and scripture passages for Christian study.  One could easily extend the word “passage” to the musical.  One could just as easily also discuss “parts” of verbs and paragraphs and documents that occur within scripture passages, but for ease, I’ll confine myself to musical parts and scriptural passages since those two have once again surfaced as things that keep me going.  (Phew.)

Within the last couple of weeks, I did a little re-arranging of two parts for a brass band, with the permission of the conductor.  The aim was to help the balance of the group—and, by extension, the tuning and tone quality, too.  I found myself energized by examining the scores for settings of She Moved Through the Fair and The Lost Chord, thinking about octaves, players, and instruments . . . and how it would sound for two players to play a section instead of three, or perhaps to drop out the tenor horns on a few notes since the range was more extreme than for the flügelhorn.  I settled on a few changes and wrote in the changes.  The biggest change was inserting a tacet for my own flügel part some of the time during the softer sections.  We barely had the opportunity to rehearse the re-arranged parts, but they came out a little better than they would have otherwise.  Considering and working through those things animated me.  I was also glad to have a flügelhorn part I could practice and improve on:  an arrangement of Shepherd’s Hey. 

Roughly during the same time period, while other things have seemed lackluster or simply haven’t gotten done, some New Testament passages have intrigued me, leading to other activity of the brain, the computer, and the soul.  I’ve reworked a translation of Philemon, focusing now on verses 6-10, and I plan to share the whole again in the future.

A Bible class last Sunday got me to ruminating on Paul’s use of a certain Greek word that appears in Colossians 2:8 (“elemental spirits”).  That same word appears twice in Galatians, and cognates also appear in four other places in the same letter.  If I ever get around to it, I’ll speculate publicly about this word and its possible structural significance within Paul’s discourse for the Galatians.

See here for a previous post on isolated verses and other short texts and whether they “stand alone” or should be considered in context.  (Spoiler alert:  they should never be assumed to stand alone!)

Because of other things tugging at me, I haven’t spent as much time with a Matthew study program as I would like.  Certain passages in Matthew 10, 13, 24, and 28 have piqued my interest in terms of

  • “the end of the age”—a phrase unique to Matthew, occurring in two of the five “teaching blocks,” including Matthew 24, and also appearing at the end in 28:20
  • God’s presence (another possible translation of “parousia”) and the Jewish temple
  • the “kingdom” theme as traced throughout Matthew

Parts and passages.  There are worse things to be intrigued and energized by!


Al’s advice

Scrolling way, way down in a poorly formatted e-newspaper, I found a gem.  Get out your jeweler’s light, and trace the all the facets of this, appreciating its shining beauty and value.

Christian friend,

So easy to take a scripture not meant for us and claim it, as if God meant it for everyone everywhere at all times.

For example:

 “Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”” Joshua 3:5 NIV

Does God do amazing things?

Of course.

But is that what this passage is saying to everyone?

No.  It’s a promise to the Jewish people as they entered the Promised Land.

Ripping it out of context and applying it to yourself today is not only poor language/exegetical skills, it could lead to frustration and loss of faith.  Many days are ordinary, with the Lord at work, subtly, behind the scenes.

I used this example because have never heard someone claim it.

But what if the passage is famous?

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV

Is this as general a promise as we’ve made it out to be?  Is it true of God and us all the time (think of all the judgment & discipline passages)?  What do Jeremiah 29, and the passages around it, indicate?  Are there other similar promises?

It may indeed be a general promise, but have we done our “due diligence”?

Let us use scripture carefully, brother & sisters.

Be blessed.

– Al Schirmacher

Soon, and for the first time ever, I might be able to say that I visited a church building solely because of a statement (oral or written) by a single preacher, pastor, or other church leader!  – Brian

Xposted: 2 Kingdom glances

Here are two links to last week’s postings in a 3-part “Kingdom Glances” series on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog.  These two, as well as the final installment yet to come, are all duly connected to the kingship of Jesus the Christ.

The Divine Conspiracy (the sequel)

King Jesus (a 1992 song)

Coming on Wednesday morning:  the 3rd and final glance in this series.  The first two were important to me but might have seemed more like mere references or historical curiosities to others.  I earnestly believe that faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus are, or at least should be, significant to everyone.  And the installment yet to come will speak in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.

I sincerely hope you will look for this and read it on Wednesday.


Textual transmission (and the transmission of a text about that very thing)

An interchange of comments on another blog amounted to a text-critical look of a modern text that was about textual transmission!

A thoughtful blogger was probing the notion of God’s providence/guidance in the transmission of scriptures.  I don’t share his particular concerns in this area but do greatly appreciate his transparent questions.  We will come back to those, but I will first share a passage from the 2nd edition of Dr. Neil Lightfoot‘s book How We Got the Bible:

The New Testament books have been handed down to us by means of thousands of copies.  Although God inspired the New Testament writers, he did not miraculously guide the hands of copyists.  Textual or Lower Criticism seeks to counteract inevitable scribal errors and recover the true form of the text.  Many mistakes in the manuscripts crept into the text unintentionally, and are difficult to detect.  Other textual modifications were made intentionally, usually by a well-meaning scribe, and these do not stand out so clearly. . . .

– Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 2nd ed., pp. 65-66 (chapter 5, “The Text of the New Testament”)

I have resisted the urge, perhaps as a well-meaning scribe myself, to delete a superfluous comma above.  I’m also paying attention to edits made by the author.  On the aforementioned blog, Londoner Steven Colborne had shared the following version of the passage from the 3rd edition of the same book:

It is a fact that the New Testament text has been transmitted to us through the hands of copyists.  It is also a fact that, since these hands were human, they were susceptible to the slips and faults of all human hands.  It is not true, therefore, that God has guided the many different scribes in their tasks of copying the Sacred Scriptures.  The Scriptures, although divine, have been handed down through the centuries by means of copies, just like any other ancient book.

– Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 3rd ed., pp. 95-96 (chapter 9, “Significance of Textual Variations”)

In the course of an interchange with Colborne, I discovered that Dr. Lightfoot’s chapters were apparently renumbered in the 3rd edition, perhaps with new material inserted, and that the passage Colborne quoted had been moved from the end of a chapter to the beginning of the succeeding chapter.  I’m intrigued by the emendations Lightfoot made.  It’s quite a different pot of parsnips, actually, in the new version!  It seems to me that the later edition is more emphatic in this area, using the expressions “it is also a fact” and “it is not true.”  Although the passages are not entirely parallel, I’d say bit of extra emphasis also exists in the latter on the human “copyists”—who appear where the “copies” (the inanimate product) had formerly appeared.

Speculative commentary
I might speculate on the reasons that led to these changes. . . .  Was an anti-intellectual bent developing among churchgoers (that I also saw represented in comments by two or three of Colborne’s other blog readers)?  A few years down the road, in view of developments in “Christian” culture, Lightfoot might have felt a heightened need to support the academic reality here:  sound text criticism does not always consist in disbelieving fabrications by liberal theologians; some of it is quite scientific, dealing largely with empirically derived data.  (In my view and presumably in Lightfoot’s, text criticism can support faith!)  Too, the Lightfoot passage would naturally have needed different emphasis when it became the lead-off verbiage of a new chapter.  In any event, the variants do exist, and it is clear, based on papyrology and etymology and linguistics and paleology and other -ologies, not to mention Textual Criticism, that human errors were involved in transmission.  Calling them “variants” might ease the tension, but the reality remains, and Lightfoot rightly calls attention to it.

For my part, I very much like Lightfoot’s “susceptible to the slips and faults”; I find that phrase suggestive of God’s open interaction with His humanity.  On the other hand, I’m not so sure about Lightfoot’s assertion that “it is not true . . . that God has guided the many different scribes in their tasks of copying.”  In context, that statement seems to affirm the “dictation theory” with respect to the original manuscripts, even as it denies God’s direct influence on the copyists.

Now for the deeper questions . . . .
The crux of the problem, for many including Colborne, rests in philosophies and theories, including the view that the divine will always subsumes the human will.  Underneath that lies a theory of how scripture was conceived and produced.  One who subscribes to an absolutist position on sovereignty¹ will be required to think that God specifically caused scribal errors to occur.

I, on the other hand, must ask why God would dictate (double entendre intended) the existence of such errors instead of miraculously preserving the original papyri, vellum, etc.  It seems to me, rather, that God simply created a human environment in which minor errors would naturally occur.  Humans went to great effort to preserve texts and transmit faith, and while I would say God was involved in that process, I would not go so far as to express confidence that He oversaw it a la today’s buck-stops-here managers, who not only have but exercise the power to override by correction—and even to hire outside vendors if no capable party can be found in-house.  God’s sovereignty, for me, is not sacrificed if copyists were allowed to make errors along the way.  Since the errors/variants do exist, I am left with at least these options:

  1. God caused the errors, or
  2. God allowed the errors, or
  3. A great many conscientious scholars have concocted nonexistent errors

Perhaps it’s my own limited sight, but I cannot conceive of divinely caused errors.  Some might opt for #3 or even #1, but #2 is the only one for me, and it speaks volumes about the nature of God and how He views humanity.  The thesis of Dr. Gary D. Collier in his book Scripture Canon & Inspiration is quite pertinent here:

The Bible is an act of faith, by people of faith, in pursuit of a conversation with God.  (p. 38)

Please read that another time or two.  Perhaps you stumble over the notion of a thing’s being an act.  Viewing the above wording more metaphorically (not in a literalist, stickler-y manner, as is more natural for me) allows one to hear the crucial message, though, in all its richly expressive symbolism.

Might we consider that . . .

. . . the Bible is the result of many acts of faith, so it becomes, in a sense, an “act of faith” itself?

. . . the “people of faith” are not literally possessed by faith but are governed by it?

. . . these faith-filled people do not “pursue” conversation physically, like a racing chariot driver who wants the Hebrew slaves back?  Instead, these people choose to do many things that lead to the writing, copying, dissemination, preservation, and translation of the texts we label as “scripture,” all under a sometimes-perfectly-pleased, always benevolent God.

All the above are my somewhat weak attempts to draw out the human elements in the production of scripture, none of which are intended to deny the divine ones.  In a comment on his blog, Colborne offered a further demurrer, commenting that if God allows a human element in the creation of scripture, that deprives the texts of their authority.  I prefer a posture of inquiry on this point, not thinking I really have it solved, but appealing to Collier’s more interactive notion, in which I would say the interplay between God and God’s people becomes authoritative in a sense.  I admit that this initially sounds weaker than most evangelical “inerrancy” statements have it.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m on board the “sola scriptura” train—although the most popular ride, over hill and dale, sometimes feels bumpy for me after it switches over onto a traditionally sanctioned bit of track.

To read Colborne’s posting in its entirety (it’s not long), go here.  I find non sequiturs in it (not at all characteristic of his writing, and probably not so in his analysis, based on his view of the will of God).  Specifically, I disagree . . .

. . . that the sovereignty and providence of God require Him to have been directly involved in text transmission
. . . that any involvement of God in text transmission would necessitate that He controlled the hands of scribes
. . . that God’s sovereignty requires that he intends for us to read certain words (as opposed to translated or paraphrased renderings) as scripture²
. . . that my confidence in God’s providence necessarily dissipates if I find Him to have built in some allowances for chance

I have over several months found Colborne to be more logically oriented than I, and I take him to be my intellectual superior.  He is typically patient and gracious, too, so I’m confident that he will support my right to differ on points here.  I’m also confident that neither Colborne’s theory nor my own constitutes the final word on text transmission or God’s providence!

~ ~ Postlude  ~ ~

Neil Lightfoot affirms that “Textual Criticism is a sound science” (p. 66, 2nd ed.).  What I know of Textual Criticism tells me his affirmation is on target.  That doesn’t mean Lightfoot’s wording can’t be off base at times, or that he won’t misuse a comma or say “all of these things are not X” when he really means “not all of these things are X.”  Nor does it mean that text critics won’t have jumped to a false conclusion here or there through the years.  (Incidentally, I started to quote Lightfoot from memory, and I had “solid science” in my head instead of “sound science.”  That would have been a copyist error, but I don’t think it would have altered the import.)

What we have is impressively well-attested texts, but we can still learn from the likes of new discoveries of ancient fragments, continued research into text “families,” and new insights that connect things for us.

¹ Here, I do not intend to “implicate” Colborne in particular, but I suspect he would not react negatively to the adjective “absolutist” with respect to his view on divine sovereignty and human will.

² I have dealt with the issue of translation from language to language in multiple prior postings.  It is an important one for any inerrantist of any shade to grapple with.

  • Here is a posting, now three-quarters of a decade old, in which I’m not all that fond of my tone.  I would still stand by the advice given.
  • Here is a far more brief, on-point posting that include this quotation:  “If you know more than one language, you know that it is impossible to translate a long string of text word-for-word.”

Odd observations for Easter: “God” in the NT

Now would you kindly think nothing odd
About my use of quotes around “God.”

British writer Lynne Truss has aptly proclaimed that “proper punctuation is …  the sign of clear thinking.”  I think I was thinking clearly (this time, at least) when I put quotation marks around “God” in the title of this post.  Here, “God” is a word used as a word, and that usage needs quotation marks, as my father the English teacher taught me.  (I hope that no one clicked out of this post because s/he thought I was going pantheistic or was unsure about whether God figures in prominently in the NT.  Although I will never comprehend God, I don’t think I’m too confused about the referent of the word “God” in the NT.)

Now, to the point and to my higher purpose:  to draw attention to the use of the word “God” in the pages of our New Testaments, following Larry Hurtado, a noted academic and specialist in Christian origins and texts.  Hurtado notes,

The great NT scholar, Nils Dahl, famously wrote an article on “the neglected factor in NT theology,” which was God!  He acutely observed that there were oodles of books on almost every other topic in the NT, but a scant number on “God.”

How interesting that God would be neglected in New Testament theology studies!  In a book of his own, Hurtado attempted to “map the contours” of “God discourse.”  In other words, he inquired how the texts we have appear to refer to God—in the “world full of gods” of the 1st century CE.  As a good biblical and historical scholar, he would attempt to avoid theological presuppositions and worrying about ramifications of anything he might uncover, simply investigating the texts.  In the next excerpt, on one level, Hurtado does deal in theology, but he is primarily making observations based on the textual evidence.

I judge that the discourse about “God” in the NT is “triadic” shaped, with “God” (often further specified as “Father”), Jesus, and the Spirit all prominent.  More specifically, I contend that in the NT writings “God” is so closely linked with Jesus that any adequate discourse about “God” must include adequate reference to Jesus.

I myself don’t find the Spirit nearly as prominent as the other two (see word counts in footnote below¹), or quite as delineated as most find them, although the Spirit is present.  Perhaps Hurtado’s sense of the relative weight of certain passages comes into play here.  The notion that Jesus shares in “divine glory and rule” surely connects to the Kingdom (kingship) of God as well as to the distinctly Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ is God.  While the Holy Spirit of God acts in Acts and appears elsewhere, the story are more about Jesus as teacher, deliverer, and risen Lord and King.

Also, remarkably, the divine Spirit “of God” (or “Holy Spirit”) in some texts is now also identified with reference to Jesus (e.g., Romans 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11; Philippians 1:19; Acts 16:7).  This must surely be a consequence of the NT claim that God has exalted Jesus to share in divine glory and rule.

The discourse about “God” in the NT is triadic in shape, but, interestingly, the worship-pattern (emph. mine  -bc) is dyadic.  That is, “God” and Jesus are invoked, prayed to, reverenced in worship, etc., whereas the Spirit doesn’t figure in the same way.  – L. Hurtado

I’ll bet oodles of evangelical Christians would be surprised at the “dyadic” bit in the last paragraph.  I’m not.  To date, my textual examination in this sphere has not been systematic or in any way scientific, but I’ve found the same absence of examples and suggestions of Spirit-worship.  Years ago, I stopped singing a couple of 3rd stanzas such as “Spirit, We Love You; we worship and adore You.”  I do not seek to downplay the action of God’s Spirit in the world as portrayed in Acts and other places; on the other hand, I do wish to shine a spotlight here on the lack of what we could have been termed a “triadic worship-pattern.”

Find Hurtado’s complete post here, and please feel free to comment here (or there).

Today, tomorrow (Easter Sunday), and beyond, consider Jesus’ willing, intentional, God-ordained sacrifice.  Then consider that God is presented as having raised Jesus, (see Hurtado’s prior post Jesus’ Resurrection: Act of God).  May we worship God the Father and God the Son, all the while seeing such expressions as “Spirit of God,” “Holy Spirit,” and “Spirit of Christ” with new clarity.

¹ Word counts in the NT (based on Greek root-word searches, except where noted):

Son of God—122
Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus—224 (Gk. phrase searches)

Total Father/Jesus/Son/Christ references:  >3,200

Spirit (includes other uses of pneuma as breath, wind, etc.)—408
Holy Spirit—23
Spirit of God—3
Spirit of Christ—2
Spirit of His Son—1
Spirit of Jesus (Christ)—2
Spirit of (your) Father—1

Total # of Spirit references:  430 (at least seven of which refer to breath or wind, not deity)

Based on the above, most Christians would assume that there are as many as 415 instances of “Spirit” that refer to a 3rd God-being.  (I do not assume that.)  See for example material presented here:

How would one describe the Indescribable?

Garrett et al on “trinity”

Software will find instances of words near other words.  These stats are interesting, but I don’t suggest that they are the only way to “slice and dice” the verbiage:

  • “Spirit” NEAR (“God” OR “Holy” OR “Jesus” OR “Christ”)—366
  • (“Jesus” OR “Son” OR “Christ”) NEAR “Spirit”—101
  • (“Father” OR “God”) NEAR “Spirit”—150

One must decide for oneself how many different entities are referred to in some passages.  In any event, the “Spirit” references appear far less frequently than Father or Son/Jesus/Christ references.

True and false bits from Isaiah

A Bible study last week reviewed Isaiah 51 and 52 in less than an hour.  This was a bit too quick but better than most.

Being far less familiar with the Old Testament than I should be, it was new to me that “Rahab” can by symbolic of Egypt.  I did a little software “homework” and found that the instances that refer to Egypt occur in Isaiah and the Psalms.  In the history book Joshua (accounting for all the other OT uses), Rahab is not Egypt but is the woman of some fame.  In the New Testament, there are but three instances, and they all refer to the same woman Rahab.

I also learned that, while Isaiah prophesied to the Southern Kingdom (Judah/Benjamin), Jeremiah prophesied to the Northern Kingdom.  That bit didn’t sound right, and sure enough, on checking a source or two, it appears to be false.

It’s also false that the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are found reconstituted in the modern nation-state of Israel.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put quite so blatantly, although it is commonly held (but also false, I believe) that modern Israel has biblical, prophetic, and/or theological significance.

It is commonly supposed, that the book we call Isaiah had multiple authors.  Deutero-Isaiah (2nd Isaiah), beginning in our chapter 40, was likely written by at least one other person other than Isaiah—and probably centuries later.  This likelihood was not acknowledged during the study.  More significantly, the nature and identification of the “Servant” character in Isaiah 52 was assumed to be singularly foretelling the Messiah.  I had previously learned that that cannot be the case all the time.  One source identifies a seemingly sensical range or “pyramid” of possibilities for the “Servant”:

  1. The collective nation of Israel
  2. A remnant from among the nation
  3. A single figure

The single figure is particularly easy to interpret as speaking prophetically of Jesus Christ, but it is good first to let the text be heard as it would have been heard in, say, the 8th or 6th or 3rd century B.C.  The nation of Israel was first to be a light and a servant to other the nations.

Story and narrative

It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other.  (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.)  The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!

“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”

Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history?  The plot might thicken, or it might not.

Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes.  How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this?  (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story.  I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)

As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.”  To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear.  I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in.  Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are.  Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.

In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .

  • the presentation and development of characters 
  • the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
  • the setting 

In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project

So in a flood, which would you read?


Increasingly, the conjunction “so” seems to be used to launch a comment rather than to connect it to something that went before.  News reporters and interviewees seem often to start commentary with “So . . ,” and it sometimes strikes me as though the interviewer is little more than a necessary prelude, interrupting the interviewee’s presumably superior, ongoing observations.

Q:  “Kristi, what are you seeing there at Comdex?”
A:  “So it’s quite the melée this year.  People everywhere.”
Q:  “What is the best new technology you’ve seen?”
A:  “So this great new app by BlitZGen Creations filters out interviewers’ questions, allowing us more knowledgeable commentators to be heard uninterrupted during the livestream experience.  It’s, like, the coolest thing since the mute button.”

Yeah, yeah.  Whatever, Kristi.

So in the livestream of my life, I am unable to keep up with much.  I always seem to get plenty to eat, to my detriment, but parenting items and household tasks and Bible studies and music projects and other things seem to stay in piles in my head—and also in puddles in the corners of life.  Just when I’d completed a couple tasks, so that things looked better this week (life has a way of balancing out like this), a pipe burst, and we got water in our basement.  Since there is no drain, it took hours to mop and sop up an estimated 25-30 gallons, and we’re grateful for the help of a friend yesterday evening.  We will lose a few items like area rugs and maybe a laptop, but many people have had it much worse.  The actual costs involved will doubtless amount to less than our insurance deductible.  In other words, our monetary losses will not be absorbed (ha) by the insurance company.  The impact on us is probably more to time, morale, and strained backs and hands.  Ah, well.

So as thoughts flood into my mind, in an effort to think about something other than the mess and the work ahead, I read a bulletin about a conference on Linguistics and NT Greek.  Then I clicked on a link about a Discourse Analysis lecture and found it took me to a festschrift in honor of one of the lecturers.  So here are the contents of the book (which is lovingly and beneficently marketed by the Logos folks here):

  • “Discourse Analysis as an Aid to Bible Translation”
  • “Why Hasn’t Literary Stylistics Caught on in New Testament Studies?”
  • “Let Me Direct Your Attention: Attention Management and Translation”
  • “How Orality Affects the Use of Pragmatic Particles, and How It Is Relevant for Translation”
  • “Organization and Allusion in Ezekiel 20”
  • “Breaking Perfect Rules: The Traditional Understanding of the Greek Perfect”
  • “Greek Presents, Imperfects, and Aorists in the Synoptic Gospels: Their Contribution to Narrative Structuring”
  • “The Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present Indicative in Narrative”
  • “Particles and Participles: A Helpful Partnership”
  • “The Semantic Effect of Floating Quantifiers in New Testament Greek”
  • “The Discourse Function of ἀλλά in Non-Negative Contexts”
  • “Information Structure Issues in Copular εἶναι Clauses”
  • “Evaluating Luke’s Unnatural Greek: A Look at His Connectives”
  • “The Use of the Article Before Names of Places: Patterns of Use in the Book of Acts”

So which chapters catch your eye?  Which would you read, and why?  I don’t yet know enough about some of those things to satisfy myself . . .

For there is much to learn . . .

Yet I do not tend to learn what I want to learn. . . .

So I will put my own five choices in the comments, hoping a few readers will do the same.

This has been a blogpost brought to you by the alternative/nonstandard use of coordinating conjunctions (and maybe a couple of adverbs).


In reading a new John Grisham novel (about my 10th, but the first in several years), I notice a technique used skillfully by the author.  Grisham likes to leave things to the imagination by leaving gaps in the narrative between chapters.  One chapter will end on a dramatic note or with some sense of “what in the world is going to happen with that situation?”  The next chapter start will somewhere entirely different, and the reader understands, within the first couple sentences, that other things have transpired in the meantime.  The gaps are eventually filled in . . . or they might not be materially filled in at all.

Image result for four gospelsThis technique reminds me of the writers or compilers¹ of the gospels—in the unique genre of literature we find in the historic-theological narrative of the four gospels.  The gospels, of course, aren’t legal suspense novels, nor are they intended as historical in terms of news incident reports or history texts today.  The gospels do relate real events that occurred in history, but there are gaps.  I might wish I knew what, if anything, transpired between Matthew 21 and 22.  Part of me longs to know what happened between John 9 and John 10.  I must be content, though, with not knowing whether it was the same crowd of Pharisees.  These “gaps” do not occur only at the ends of “chapters.”  There were no chapters or verses for quite some time, and the ones we have today can be problematic in some instances.  Are we sure that no time transpired between Matthew 4:23 and Matthew 5?  If none did, it affects the interpretation of the so-called “sermon on the mount.”  What about between Mark 8:21 and 8:22, as the reader enters the literary core of that gospel?  There are literary markers that give clues, but in most cases, I’ll have to be content in the un-knowing.

It is important to realize that the Jesus-narratives retained in our four canonical gospels amount to selective literary portraits, not exhaustive documentaries in a meticulous, 21st-century sense.  As such, the gospels tell selected things, putting them in certain orders for their own purposes.   There are gaps in, and re-orderings of, the respective storylines.  The reader should know that time might pass between two events, or the second might have occurred before the first.  Did the “cleansing of the temple” occur late in Jesus’ life, or early in his ministry, as the “contra-optic” John has it?  Did the Nicodemus conversation occur soon after that, or was there a gap of weeks, months, or even years between the two?

I wish I could fill in more of the gaps in the life and teaching of Jesus, but I think I have my hands full with what I already have in my head and heart.

¹ Not one of our four gospels retains a definite authorship attribution, and the names we have associated with each one are based on tradition—strong tradition in some cases, but tradition nonetheless.  I tend to think that each of them was tied in some way to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Perhaps most of the inscribing and compiling of selections of written fragments (and oral traditions) was ultimately the busywork of groups of believers that surrounded each of those men.

Manuscripts, data validity, and textual criticism

More and more, I ponder the nature and provenance of scripture.  Until a few days ago, for instance, I had never stopped to consider that there might have been abbreviations in the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters.  After all, it is clear that he used an amanuensis, and such a methodological setup could easily have involved abbreviations that were later expanded into full forms of words.  This possibility does not threaten my notion(s) of scripture, but it does expand my thinking a little.  If any such thoughts make you uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but please read on.  I think you’ll find that the bits below¹ serve more to shore up than to wear away any moorings.

We have multiple copies of scripture documents from the same period of history, and when we use these copies to check one another, the bottom line is that we have extraordinarily stable and reliable scripture texts.  (The scenario is quite different with most classical, secular works of which perhaps one to three medieval copies survive.)

Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrmann has sensationalized the reality that tens of thousands of manuscript variants exist.  It might well be difficult to put that fact in perspective, if one is ignorant of the fact that 10,000 or more fragmentary manuscripts exist, and that all of them were copied by hand.  And after all, it must be expected that minor variants would exist, especially given that the copies were made over a period of more than 1200 years.  We exist these days in a photocopier world in which minor variants occur only in terms of toner density or pieces of lint that fall onto the glass platen, but the ethos fostered by our duplication scenario was simply inconceivable to the ancients.  Although textual variants were a part of ancient reality, again, according to Hurtado, the percentage of insignificant variants is high—higher than 95%.  These variants do not deserve much individual attention, relatively speaking.  Of the remaining ones, many are very intriguing, but none alter the reality of the Christian faith.

Here is an exceedingly interesting point that makes a good deal of common sense:  when fragments make up the documentary evidence for our sacred texts, the aggregate weight is more convincing if they are randomized than if the selections had been neatly and intentionally chosen.  In other words, if I am a scribe in the 5th century and I want to make a point, I might choose, say, John chapter 6 and part of chapter 7 with a neat beginning and ending.  I might copy that text and disseminate it, wanting my selection to serve a particular purpose and giving it a designated beginning and ending.  On the other hand, if two surviving fragments begin in the middle of different paragraphs and end at different points—one of them, say, ending in the middle of a word, the very fact that the fragmentation has occurred without forethought can help in the process of validation.

Speaking now of more complete copies, as opposed to fragments . . . according to Larry Hurtado, John’s gospel boasts more early, surviving manuscript copies than any other New Testament “book.”²  Hurtado, a recognized expert in the field of Christian origins, also

  • states that there were early Christian “copy centers”—for instance, in Antioch, where master versions were held for the express purpose of making copies for dissemination
  • frequently asserts the generally “bookish” nature of early Christians, even going so far as to say that some early Christians were textual maniacs

I infer from such insights as Hurtado’s that early Christian devotees—either consciously or by providence (or both) were in their writings and disseminations setting forth solid evidence for generations to come.

For a related post on Hurtado’s blog, try here for starters.

¹ Many of these thoughts come from notes I took while listening to a podcast featuring Dr. Larry Hurtado.

² However, Matthew’s gospel seems to have been quoted the most frequently by “church fathers” in the succeeding centuries.