Reprise: quality in study methodology (1 of 2)

A recent post on “quality” and “better methods” prompted a thoughtful challenge from a regular reader.  Generally, I took the interlocution as probing my assessment of Bible study methods:  “Who sets the standard for ‘better’?”  Specifically,¹ Rick Warren’s published methods (which I’d identified as being of uneven quality) were mentioned, and I’ll deal with those more in the next post.

My post on 10/14 was not one of my “better” (ha) ones, and I was probably scapegoating, to some extent.  (Maybe I’d do “better” to bemoan the lack of quality in other areas:  conductor selection processes, auto insurance departments’ lack of communication with each other, fast food touch-screen programming, etc.)  Quality and substance are always of concern to me, not just in Christian arenas.

I’m not prepared to ease up much on—much less to retract—the basic call for utilizing the best known methods in Bible study.  In the spirit of discussion, I’m setting out here to identify what I see as the hows and whats and whys (the whos aren’t the issue) of quality in Bible study.

What’s paramount?
wpid-img_20151023_090040_001.jpgOne problem with most Bible Study “methods” and practices is that they simply don’t expend energy on context.  In the “general church folks” milieu, not taking textual scholarship into consideration is probably secondary, but it is also significant.  I believe these two items are of paramount importance.  Methods that do not scratch the surface of either 1) context or 2) responsible scholarship are inherently of lesser quality.

In giving Warren’s list of study methods a once-over, I thought the dozen was neatly and readily marketed, but only 1/3 to 1/2 seemed to have authentic merit.  One evening, I was in a group that used one of Warren’s methods—one of his better ones (or so I’d thought)—but the discussion ended up majoring heavily in vague, nearly baseless opinions, teased out by the question “Which word stood out to you in this chapter?”

  • One strong pro several people in the group seemed to have read the whole chapter at least once, in preparation (!).  They actually had ready answers to the above question!  Wow!
  • A few cons: 1) book-level context was ignored; 2) the range of meaning of the original-language word was not on the table; 3) the situation into which the letter had been directed was presumed impertinent by default (not by direct statement); and 4) no textual structuring within the document was considered.

May people’s faith be stimulated by activities that don’t have biblical text as their basis?  Of course, yes.  On the other hand, if it walks like a cat, it’s not a duck.  If it’s more devotion- or inspirational theme-based, it’s probably not be Bible study per se.  Such motivations for living Christianly may be great, and I’d accept that they can be God-originated.  More often, I observe that they are synthetic, and I’d suggest that apparent “spiritual growth hormones,” synthesized by humans, are not organically grown out of the text.  They can produce artificial results.  Such insights might well be valuable, but why call them “Bible study”?

Some may not be “into” responsible, contextual handling of Biblical texts
In his response to the earlier post, my esteemed interlocutor speculated on the needs of young believers, as well as women’s take on things.  He would never have been attempting to paint an entire gender pink, but I took it that he was (rightly) saying, “Not everyone’s like you, Brian.”  Another relatively academic friend’s wife, the guy says, isn’t interested in anything that seems “academic,” and more women may indeed feel that way than men.  To the extent that it’s a women thing, it may be because of bad male behavior—blustering through dogma and other junk under the macho guise of scholarship, rather than purveying genuine academic insights.

Personally, I’m glad my wife is more into context than in typical “let go and let God” fluff or jumping around through different biblical books to find bits about love, joy, peace, faith, and goodness.  I do not judge the hearts of the women or men who are inspired and spurred on to good by such things, but I am not myself drawn by non-contextual study, and I do think there are more viable, more valid ways of going about edification, to boot.

I’m happy to report that quite a few other insightful women with whom I’ve had the privilege of studying would also prefer to be honest and responsible with one text on its own.  I’m sure it’s the same just about anywhere, although we also know some others (women and men) who reject anything that seems academic to the slightest degree.Barton

As for new believers, there is certainly a need for good study methods appropriate for baby Christians.  What is not OK is using bad methods that lead to invalid conclusions that in turn lead to shallow Churchians.  The alternative is good methods—methods that help to produce lifelong learner-disciples who over the years come to understand more and more of how history and ancient texts inform authentic faith.

Next:  Rick Warren’s methods

¹  Caveat lector:  I had originally also called out Joel Osteen’s fluff, and that stuff deserves no more comment—not while discussing Bible study, at least.  Arguably, the Gospel Advocate (a sectarian publication) does major in Bible study, but its tenor has in much of the past been more geared to watch-dogging and propping up denominational tenets than to digging into texts without prejudice.  On this my friend Steve and I agree.  One thing further here:  I shouldn’t have named the Beth Moore material, not having had any personal experience with it.  I imagine it is some of the better devotion-based material out there, and I presume it gets into real Bible exegesis at least some.  My wife, having had two experiences with Beth Moore material, has now supported my impression in general terms.

An inclination to dig

The last post consisted of strong support for the primacy of exegesis, which might be simplified to “digging.”  Well-conducted exegesis includes a range of sub-disciplines, including investigation into the historical and cultural backgrounds of the author, the text, and the original audience, along with analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.

Often, I muse on things in the exegetical vein, but self-imposed constraints lead to time for but one exegetical post here at the end of September.  What should it be? . . .

Maybe some current work from 1Corinthians (I’m engaged in this study with a group)?  Something from past digs in Ruth or Galatians?  I could merely list some links to previous posts that demonstrate exegetical concerns.  I have a whole list of items to take up from the Gospel of John.  Maybe one of those, as an example?  Or—just today, I got very excited again about Philemon . . . I read the decades-old Moffatt translation of that beautiful letter today and thought that it might be the best published translation I’ve seen.  Of course, my own modification of my friend Greg Fay’s translation is even better.  🙂  How about a post on Philemon?

What I’ve come down to is none of the above; instead, I’ll share a question or two, and an observation or three, arising out of an Acts group study in which I have the pleasure of participating this fall.

  1. In Acts 13-14-15, author Luke has Paul and Barnabas starting and finishing a “missionary journey.”  That there is something of a full circle in this section may be seen by comparing 13:1-2 with 14:26-27; an inclusio may been observed here.  Although this is certainly no epiphany, and although it may be seen just as well in English as in Greek, noting the beginnings and ends of sections can help immeasurably in interpretation.
  2. Various themes and emphases may be observed in Acts, e.g., the work of the Spirit, the missionary activities from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria and beyond.  Also, throughout Acts, thoughtful readers will see a wealth of material that treats the move from Jew to non-Jew (gentile).  This topic is no mere trifle to be ignored; it is arguablyjew_and_gentile a major theme of Acts, seen in Paul’s synagogue preaching and yet-obvious push toward non-Jews, the Jerusalem conference, and more.  At that point in history, the group of believers was both Jew and non-Jew.  One thing dawned on me for the first time tonight in this light:  from a literary standpoint, certain repetitiveness in Acts texts may constitute a strong emphasis on the move from an Israel- or Jew-centric faith toward one that is inclusive of all non-Jews, as well.  Consider these three examples:
    • In chapter 10, Peter has the vision/dream/trance that leads to the evangelization of Cornelius’s household.  The next chapter involves a significant amount of repetition as Peter retells the incident.
    • In chapter 15, the Jerusalem conference involves some repetition (cf. 15:19 and 15:22-29).
    • Chapter 21 involves repetition of chapter 15’s themes.
  3. Further on the Jew==>gentile theme. . . .  In 15:14, James (this one is presumed to be Jesus’ brother and is not, in any event, the apostle James who had already died) used the name “Simeon” instead of Peter”—perhaps pointing up a Jewish emphasis before heading down the gentile path later in the verse.  The choice of “Simeon” over “Peter” or “Cephas” may hint at the major transition that was occurring over time, not to mention that it may also show James’s wisdom in noting Peter’s Jewishness for the sake of any hard-line “circumcision party” members in the group.
  4. There is some evidence in chapter 15 of standard rhetorical forms of the day, leading the reader to see even more emphasis within a) the actual discussion/debates that occurred, and b) Luke’s depiction of them.
  5. On a smaller scale, but related to #2 above, I note that presbuteros (elder), a word used sparingly by Luke, appears in Acts 15:7:  “And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.”  It strikes me to ask of Luke’s text whether there is any reason we should assume these elders are elders in the “Jerusalem church” as such.  Could this use of “elders” be more respective of synagogue/Jewish tradition?  Not that those referred to weren’t Christ-ian; everyone involved in these discussions and debates would have been believers in Jesus as Messiah.  But perhaps those referred to as “elders” here were not appointed as church elders in the same sense as those of 14:23;  maybe these were simply Jewish old men (≈ “elder,” not necessarily a churchy word) who has accepted Christ.

What I hope, based on the above questioning, is that

  • this has shown my own inclination, although inadequate, to dig into the actual text of scripture, gleaning from each text on its own
  • it also has moved some readers to incline themselves even more toward this type of study

And, to the point that was made in the last post about not rushing to apply texts before we understand them: 

It is incumbent on us to make observations about a text, understanding it as thoroughly as we can, before we try to make an exemplary pattern for all time.

One highly significant thing to be observed throughout Acts is that there was a rather seismic shift taking place among the believers in Yahweh, in the 30s, 40s, and beyond.  This shift was, simply put, the inclusion of gentile believers in the group of God’s people.

B. Casey, 9/16/15

P.S.  For understandable, responsible, overview information on Acts, I recommend these bite-sized videos (3 minutes each, by Dr. Gary D. Collier) on sections of the book:

Philemon — personal translations

In the course of this month’s focus on scripture, I have not been very balanced.  I have treated one relatively unimportant topic with far too many words, have treated a very important set of topics with even more words, and haven’t gotten to some other aspects of scripture at all.  One of the beauties of blogging is that I can set the timetable, so this scripture focus doesn’t have to be over with the passing of February.  On the other hand, it’s probably time to move into other areas.  I appreciate any attention readers have been able to give to these thoughts about scripture, Bibles, context, translations, and more.

I have shared some of my own translation work in 1Corinthians.  I am finding that the exercise (drill? work? practice?) of translation carries with it more power to get me closer to the text than any other activity I have experienced to date.  Therein lies the primary value, I suspect — it is very personal for me.  There’s probably no better way to bring this blogmonth to a close than to share such a personal translation of a very personal letter.

One or more questions might come up. . . .

Q:  Why translate this yourself when dozens of English versions are available at the click of a mouse? 
A:  Because this process has been one important part of my learning what Paul was saying in this letter.  Translating has gotten me in touch with the original and has helped me comprehend not only the text, but also the subtext.

Q:  Why are there no “verse” numbers below? 
A:  That is no inadvertent omission.  I simply didn’t want to insert any unnecessary distractions from the flow of this marvelous letter; and after all, there were no verse numbers in the original letter.

Q:  I don’t see my favorite verse in here!  You wouldn’t have left something out of the translation, would you?
A:  Of course I wouldn’t have intentionally left anything out.  It just might not look the same as you’ve heard or read it before.  My translation certainly isn’t the only possible one, but it is better than many, and I hope you’ll consider my renderings, asking questions if you have any.

Q:  Why did you choose Philemon?  Is this like choosing “Jesus wept” when asked to memorize a verse, because it’s short?
A:  Yes!  (Also, I have come to love this letter.  I feel a great attachment to it and its exegesis.)

Q:  Why are there two versions?  Do you disagree with yourself?  🙂
A:  In the first case, I followed more of a word-for-word approach, although no one-to-one correspondence is possible, and I still allowed myself latitude.  I prefer the second — the “Expansive Paraphrase” — in most cases.  Please don’t view the first as the better or more “literal” translation.  The second is also a translation, and it is a deeper representation of the original, in my estimation.

Q:  You included a lot of commentary and notes under your translations of 1Cor 4:1-5.  Not that I read all that, but I wonder why you don’t have that sort of material here.
A:  Good question.  The answer is that my process was much different with Philemon.  Although I was often working with the Greek during the past several years of contact with Philemon, I did not research lexicons or other Greek resource materials in the same way.  Given that Philemon is so short, I felt I had a good sense of the overall message, and I worked with the shape and structure of the text more than the tenses, moods, and declensions, etc., of individual words and phrases.  I acknowledge that another type of translation — more informed by the types of work I did with 1Cor 4:1-5 — would be different and possibly “better.”  I don’t imagine my own expansive paraphrase would change much, and all the general senses would remain intact.

Q:  I notice some interesting links in your translations.  Where do they come from?
A:  Philemon is indisputably structured as a chiasm — which means “reverse parallelism” is built in to the language and the flow of thought.  I have tried to reflect some of these parallel constructions in my translations.  For more detail, see this really poorly formatted, but chock-full blog from a few years ago, or this nice-looking layout on another site.

The translations below are works-in-progress and were last revised about three months ago.

I. Relatively LiteralFrom:   Paul prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy the brotherTo:      Our co-worker Philemon, whom I truly love, Apphia the sister, Archippus our fellow-soldier, and the church at your house

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.



I always thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and your faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.  I pray that your faith-partnership may become activated as you perceive your every good thing for Christ.  I have truly come to have a great deal of joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.



Therefore, although I am bold enough in Christ to give you an imperative, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.  This is I, Paul—an old man, and now also Jesus Christ’s prisoner.

I’m now appealing to you for my child—whom I produced, in a manner of speaking, while in prison-bonds—Onesimus . . . the one formerly useless to you, but now indeed full of use, both to you and to me.



I am sending this one, who is my own heart, back to you (although I was wanting to keep him with me) — so that he, figuratively in your place, might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel.  However, I chose to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good thing might not be something in which you felt forced, but rather did by your own decision.


Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a brother whom you truly love—very much loved by me, but how much more can he now be loved by you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.




If, then, you consider me your partner, let him come to you as if it were I coming to you.


And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it . . . ignoring that you owe me even your own self! Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord!   Refresh my heart in Christ.


Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be given to you.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

II. Expansive Paraphrase (Dynamic Equivalent)To our co-worker Philemon, whom I truly love, sister Apphia; Archippus the soldier we’ve “fought” with, and the church at your house; from Paul—a prisoner—and Timothy.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


I perpetually thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of both your love and your faith toward both the Lord Jesus and all the saints.  I pray that your faith-partnership gets up and acts on its convictions, as you come to perceive your every good thing (remember those words!) for Christ.  I speak genuinely when I say that I’ve experienced a lot of joy and encouragement because of your love, and the saints’ hearts have been refreshed through you, my brother.



Therefore, although I have the Christ-given authority to obligate you, I would much rather speak to you out of love, out of relationship.  To set the stage, if you’ll allow me a little leeway here to sound “pathetic” as I describe my side of our relationship . . . I’m self-identifying now as an old man—and now also Jesus Christ’s prisoner, don’t forget. . . .


I’m now appealing to you for my child—the one I spiritually fathered while in prison-chains . . . the one who was obviously not beneficial to you, but who is now positively beneficial, to you and to me.  Yes, you’ve assumed correctly—I’m talking about none other than Onesimus.


I’m sending this man—and please understand that he’s so close to me now that I consider him my very heart—back to you (although I was wanting to keep him with me).  And why was I of two minds, wishing he could stay?  So that he—taking your place, as it were—might serve me during my imprisonment for the gospel’s sake.  I’m consciously avoiding taking any unilateral action, though, and this is why:  so that any choice you make for a good thing would be something you did because you chose to do it—not out of a sense of obligation.


Maybe, just maybe, you could think of Onesimus’s escape as having a more important purpose, ending in a new, overall reality.  Why, then, might all this have happened? So that you might have him back in a lasting sense, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a brother you sincerely love.  Of course I love him dearly, but how much more can you now love him as a dear brother, both in terms of the human relationship and in the Christian sense.


So, if you consider me your partner, and I know you do, the obvious baseline here is that you welcome Onesimus in the same way you would welcome me if I walked up to your house.

And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, put it on my account.   I, Paul, am writing this myself:   I’ll take care of the bill (and may I remind you that you owe me everything). 🙂   I’m going a step further than the obvious here, and I know that you know that.  Philemon, let me experience “beneficial” from you in the Lord!  Refresh “my heart” in Christ. (Get me?)

I’m sure you will not only defer to the obvious message; you’ll also see the rationale and the love involved in taking the subsequent step.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, because I’m hoping through your prayers to be “given” to you. (See how “paybacks” work?)

Epaphras, my co-prisoner in Christ Jesus, says hello, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.  May the Lord Jesus Christ’s grace be with your spirit.


© 2010-2014 Brian Casey.  All rights reserved.  Any sincere, reasonable request to use one or both of these translations, in whole or in part, is hereby granted!

1Cor 4:1 — dialoguing with Paul

An obviously hypothetical, personal, interactive dialogue with Paul about his use of the word ὑπηρέτας | hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1. . . .

Me:  Hi, Paul.  Nice to see you.  Haven’t met up in a while.

Paul:  You, too.  And it’s OK.  We’re both busy.

Me:  [smiles embarrasedly]

Paul:  And don’t give me that “your work is so much more important than mine” stuff.  We are both doing things for the Lord.

Me:  I’ll try.  So, I have this question. . . .

Paul:  Shoot.

Me:  Do you remember writing to the Corinthians about your role, and Apollos’s, and theirs?  It was in a context of sort-of sizing things up and assessing things.

Paul:  I think I remember what you mean, yes.  Crispus & Gaius & Co. needed to know more about what I was doing and why, and how it all was working under Christ.

Me:  You used the word hupēretas.

Paul:  Hmm.  An uncommon word.  I think I remember.  What about it?

Me:  Well, I’m trying to figure out what it meant, and then to translate it for a new English version.

Paul:  [furrows] English.  I hear that’s a difficult language!

Me:  Yep.  And the language has a lot of influence and circulation, so I want to do a good job, no matter how far this little translated passage goes. . . .  I’ve been back and forth on this one word, changing it to this and that, trying to satisfy multiple people and goals.  Some people — good people with good goals and more devotion than I have — seem to think it’s all about using the best, most well-attested lexicons to make a translation choice.  I get that, but in considering this text and this particular word, it gets a little squirrel-y.

Paul:  What’s a squirrel?

Me:  Oh, sorry.  It’s just a figure of speech.

[We interrupt this non-scheduled, hypothetical conversation for a non-commercial, instructive message. . . .

The “squirrel” thing came out as I wrote, without thinking.  I actually laughed out loud — not only at the possibility of talking about a squirrel with Paul, but also, about how this ended up being an illustration of the whole “figure of speech” thing.  I hadn’t mentioned squirrels in this post, or in this series, or in this month-long focus on scripture, or in the whole 6-7 years of blogging.  (Relate those, respectively, to this small 4:1-5 text block in 1Corinthians, the sub-context of chapters 3-6ish, the whole letter, or the whole New Testament.)  But the squirrel image might still be used, and it might still communicate something.  One might have to research what a squirrel was, which subspecies were in the author’s experiences, and how the cognate adjective “squirrel-y” might relate.

The mention of squirrels was a completely serendipitous thing here.  But a beautiful thing it was, since part of the problem in translating hupēretas has been the fact that the word is used only this once in Paul’s letters, so it’s impossible to conclude with any finality what he meant by the word.  And now, back to our conversation.]

Me:  Apparently, the word can have all sorts of nuanced meanings, all relating to working for an authority figure like a king or a master helmsman.

Paul:  In this case, working for our Lord Christ!

Me:  Yes!  And I’m trying to figure out how to communicate the idea in English, without direct knowledge of what was in your head as you wrote for God’s kingdom back then.  I figured, why not use an image that emanates from the literal components?  When there’s not much to go on, and/or when lexicons emphasize different things, maybe this kind of paraphrase can be useful.  Or can it?

One of my chief instructors believes etymology is pretty low on the totem pole as you translate.  I’m still thinking that through and recently read something about Hebrew’s being more subject (more so than Greek) to this kind of meaning-based-on-semantic-development process.  On the other hand, I wonder if, sometimes, factors other than word usage — like poetic effect and etymology — might be helpful in getting the sense of the original.  Along with the context, of course.  Anyway, I don’t meant to bore you, but I got pretty overwrought about this.  No one has any idea what all this did to me internally, although I showed a trifle of my feelings in a couple of things I wrote, all the while trying to be a part of a group effort.

All I wanted to do was use one likely, or possible, or whatever, image that could have been in your mind as I said in English what I think you were saying, overall, in Greek.  The word “servants” is inadequate since two other, common Greek words are translated “servants” in a whole covey of English versions.  The New English Bible from, like, 50 years ago has “underlings,” and that at least makes one notice the expression, but the Revised English Bible from 25 years ago has a somewhat less potent word — “subordinates.”  Seemed like a regression to me.

I figured, why not do a little more in a paraphrase?  I also noticed that you used of a form of symbasileuo — another uncommon word — in 4:8.  Maybe you were extending the idea of being both under and with Christ there by saying something like “reigning with.”  Just because Christian workers aren’t referred to in this manner anywhere else in the NT doesn’t mean you didn’t want the wording to stand out as a figure of speech, right?  It seems plausible — although obviously not the only possible reading — to say that ὑπηρέτας could mean “oarsmen who are subordinate to, and rowing with, Christ our captain.”  Am I right?  I’m only trying to do something meaningful here.  What I got was critique that was mostly helpful, but it brought on some other background stuff that was anything but helpful.  It got to me.

Paul:  Brian, don’t let all this steal your spirit.  I don’t honestly remember if I had the ship image in mind with hupēretas, but there’s a good possibility I did.  And you’re right, at least, that the word stands out since it’s so uncommon.  That mere fact means it’s more squirrel-ly, as you say, to try to translate it.  All I can say now is that I do remember how I felt when I left Corinth by sea, headed back toward Caesarea.  I might very well have been recalling my voyage when I wrote to them a couple years later.  You know, now that I think about it, I remember sitting on that ship and thinking about whether the Corinthians would be fulfilling their own missions with, and under, Christ.

Me:  Thank you so much.  This really helps.

Paul:  [pauses]  You know, it’s not really a big deal how you translate that one word.  It’s more important that you understand how I was working for, and with, Christ.  There are several ways you could say that.  You made one good choice by writing “an oarsman rowing with, and subordinate to, Christ,” and since I’m a “word guy” kind of like you, I might have even been thinking about the etymology of hupēretas — “under-rower,” or “one who steers under a master helmsan,” something like that.  But there are other options when translating that into another language.

Me:  Yeah, I know.  And I know one word isn’t a big deal, but the whole thing required so much of me.  I spent way too many hours on this comparatively tiny translation project.  And it all became a big deal because of relationship dynamics . . . related communications led to all sorts of hurtful stuff.  I probably shouldn’t go into that more here.

Paul:  Understood.  And what is it those later Italians started saying?  Que sera, sera?  Anyway, see you again soon?

Me:  Maybe sooner, yeah.  I think I’ll have more time in the near future.  I think I should probably read some OT history now, along with studying Mark, but I’ll try to stay in what we call 1Corinthians, too.

Paul:  Sounds good!

Me:  And may I just say that I love your letter to Philemon so much.  I think I have a better understanding of that (and your relationships with Philemon and Onesimus) than I have of 1Corinthians.

Paul:  [winks]  I loved both those Colossian guys so much.  Grace and peace to you.

1Cor 4:1 — applying etymology (2)

In considering etymology‘s place in biblical studies, my primary new source of instruction has been Moisés Silva’s book Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (1983-1994).  Here is the conclusion to his chapter on etymology:

Modern studies compel us to . . . distrust a word’s history; at the same time, we must use the past history of a word in coordination with its present use by means of the notion of transparency.  (p. 51)

For Silva, “transparency”¹ refers to one of three varieties of an inherent relationship between the word itself and its meaning:

  1. phonological — meaning connected to the sound made when uttering the word
  2. morphological — meaning connected to the component parts
  3. semantic — meaning connected to words used figuratively and yet understandably without background knowledge of the combined figure (Silva’s example — “foot of the hill”)

1.  Now, I can’t resist #1 above, because it relates to my poetic/aesthetic and musical sensibilities and training.  Silva suggests that some words may be “phonologically motivated” — impelled by the very sound they make.  Think onomatopoeia here — words like “sizzle” and “shush.”  It’s probably too much of a stretch to think that the Greek eresso [etymologically a component of hupēretas] might have been onomatopoetic, sort of making the sound of the oars in the water, or the mechanical steering components of ancient boats, but maybe it’s not too much of a stretch after all, and that’s the kind of thing my weird head goes to sometimes.  (Say the word out loud, repeating it at intervals, and you might think I’m less crazy:  ehr – ESS – oh . . . ehr – ESS – oh.)  This human, at least, hears the sounds of words in addition to their derived meanings, and I suspect a segment of humanity has always noticed sounds in this manner.  The questions in this case are at least two:  could this word have been phonologically motivated?  And could Paul have been conscious of that connection on some level?  The odds of affirmative answers for both of those together, I suppose, are not good, but I still feel like asking Paul about it.  (Please see the next post on Friday — a highly unusual type/style for me. . . .)

2.  Beyond a possible sound-connection, #2 above is also potentially related to the meaning of Paul’s word hupēretas or eresso.  Morphology (the identification and consideration of  linguistic units such as roots and prefixes) is more directly tied to what most of us think of as etymology, and this was the root impetus for these recent blogs.  The word hupēretas has two components; whether Paul might have been consciously aware of those components as he wrote remains my essential question.  The problem comes in not knowing what was in Paul’s head.  (Again, please see Friday’s post.  It’s not as heavy and hard to wade through as this one; it might be just as significant; and it was more fun to write.)

3.  With #3, I think Silva has in mind the semantic relationship of whole words, not the smaller morphological components such as roots . . . but figures of speech are perhaps in the background with both hupēretas and eresso. 

Silva has also contrasted the following two etymological approaches:

  • diachronic — an approach that considers evolution of words, moving through time
  • synchronic — an approach that analyzes language in one era, not considering historical change

These labels initially threw me off the scent—ironically enough, because of etymologically analyzable components:  the prefix “syn” implies “together” — which initially might suggest considering the developmental/historical senses of a word together, but that’s not what Silva means.  For him, the diachronic approach is more like what is commonly conceived of as “etymology,” which works with the components that have arisen in any time period.

“Even in the closest ties between historical and descriptive studies, however, the priority of synchrony, the dominant function of usage, must be maintained,” concludes Silva.  (p. 51)

While he gives some credence to (diachronic) etymology in determining NT Greek meanings, he allows more such latitude in Hebrew studies, noting, “The relative value of this use of etymology varies inversely with the quantity of material available for the language” (p. 42).  Because of 1) the nature of Hebrew, and 2) the relative paucity of documents available in Hebrew, “diachronic” etymology will play a more significant role in OT studies than with NT Greek studies.

Here are some other, summary points, when considering the place of etymology in translating:

    1. Some terms may only be apparently connected to the historical meanings, or to meanings of their component parts. (49)
    2. Compounds (such as hupēretas) and derivatives may lose their associations with earlier elements if those elements are no longer used. (49)  So, if eresso was falling out of use by the middle of the 1st century, hupēretas might no longer have been consciously associated with rowing.
    3. “Greek — a rather synthetic language – is relatively transparent.”  A compound word that at one point was associated with a certain idea could possibly be recalling that idea although no longer directly associated with it.  (49)  So, a compound word like hupēretas could still be recalling the idea of rowing or steering, although it might have lost any conscious association with eresso.
    4. a. A derivative term that retains its spelled-out components might well undergo semantic changes over a period of years, decades, or centuries.  b. It is also possible for a word to take on a new sense, disconnected from its historical etymology. (50)

So, what should one do — one who is reading, trying to understand, and trying to arrive at a translation of a rather obscure Greek word or expression?

Should he go with a basic, “gloss” meaning for a word, perhaps intuiting a bit from the immediate context?

Should he zoom out to a book-level context to see what might be possible in the mind of an author who uses a word?

Should he zoom out even further to consider other authors’ (biblical or otherwise) uses of the same word?  Their uses of similar/cognate words?  Their uses of other words in the same semantic domain?

Should he investigate the etymologically attested meaning and/or the semantic development of the term?

Should he dump the best definitions into a hopper to see what the average, common, consensus rendering might be?  What happens if he inadvertently seasons the mixture with one or two of the second-best definitions?

(Merit is found in all the above.)

Might a reader and would-be interpreter/translator also be so bold as to “dialogue” intuitively with the apostle Paul — in this case, to ask him, in absentia, what he meant by hupēretas?

[To be continued — in hypothetical dialogue with Paul]



¹ The opposite of transparent is opaque; an opaque word would be one with no apparent relationship between spelling/sounding and meaning — an arbitrary meaning, if you will.

Brian Casey, 2/18-25/2015

1Cor 4:1 — probing the application of etymology in translation

I’m still exploring translation.  Following the sharing of my 1Cor 4:1-5 translations and abbreviated thoughts on the role and processes of lexical works, I want to consider the application of etymology in biblical studies.

[Caveat lector for the sake of any NB* or CB* or QQB* who may happen in here:  this is no seminarian blog; neither am I subject, by reason of salary or conscience, to any denomination.  Rather, I am a sincere believer who tries—among pursuits in Christian, musical, and other spheres—to study the original NT language, toward a more apt application, in this era, of well-attested, ancient texts.   * NB = non-believer; CB = closeted believer; QQB = questioning or quasi-believer ]

I confess this:  it is difficult for me to give up etymology.  I am a “word guy”often thinking about words, punning and teaching my child to pun, and looking for the perfect expression. . . .  When I began to realize that etymology would often steer me off course (eresso/hupēretas | row or steer reference intended!), it was painful.

In the last day of preparation of this post, I found someone else’s blog that’s even titled with the word eresso (the root etymological component of hupēretas).  On that blog, a single, etymologically derived definition has taken on a life of its own.  Says that writer, Brad Besson, “‘Eresso’ describes the galley slaves in the belly of the ship whose rowing propelled the ship through the sea.”  Besson has apparently taken as his jumping-off point this same text, 1Cor 4:1, but he has perhaps been a bit more careless than I:

  • he misspelled hupēretas (an easy mistake to make)
  • he conflated two related words as though they are one and the same
  • he advanced one etymologically derived definition (presumably Robertson or Thayer) to the exclusion of others

I think Besson was seeking to create, for the sake of his readers, an image of a dutiful slave, rowing a boat for Christ.  Devotionally speaking, that may in fact be a rich or helpful image, but it is less textually justified than my own translation.  The question may be one of purpose:  what is the purpose of this or that blog or translation?  Besson doesn’t appear to have text translation as one of his primary purposes, so he should probably be graciously excused from the requirement to adhere strictly to the most stringent translation principles.  Or should he not be excused?

How far afield from the text can one go in order to make a devotional point?

When one uses an etymologically based definitionin Besson’s case, sort of amalgamating definitions of two related wordsto support a preconceived point, he is in danger of saying something the text doesn’t say.  (For the record, I don’t think Besson has said anything remotely “dangerous.”  He has made a point in keeping with general NT thoughts about serving under Christ.)  On the other hand, when one uses appropriate resources appropriately, he is much more likely to say what the text actually says.)

Etymology’s berth in textual studies is not a particularly elevated one.  Yet etymology may at times be judiciously pressed into service.

Moisés Silva deems etymological research “the backbone of comparative linguistics” (Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, 1983-1994, p. 41), but 1) the value of comparing cognates inside a family of ancient languages is more on-track than 2) attempting to determine the meaning of a single, Koiné Greek word based on its components.  In other words, etymology is not as valuable in NT Greek word studies as it is when an ancient, Semitic language is being compared, say, to Aramaic or Hebrew.

Many a time have I heard preachers and others make the points given as negative examples in Silva’s book.  ShootI have made those points myself!  Hermeneutically speaking, I have been guilty of the crime of stealing identitiesidentities of words, that ishijacking them without harmful purpose, but taking them where they didn’t want to go nonetheless.  It’s hard not to make connections, for instance, between 2000-year-old Greek and contemporary English when I’m a teacher who naturally searches for metaphors to communicate important ideas to students.  The Greek dunamis (dynamis), for example, may easily be connected by morphemes to the English “dynamic” and “dynamite,” but any real, conceptual linkage is tenuous at best.

In over-exuberance, I might be caught saying something like this to a music ensemble when they are being conservative with musical dynamics:

“You guys are playing more like hibernating rabbits than lions right now.  The dynamic shape here should be larger and more dramatic.  You know, the word “dynamic” comes directly from a Greek word that was sometimes used to describe powerful displays — miracles — beyond the naturally observable.  Let’s make the dynamic shape of this passage more powerful — almost miraculous.”

In saying all the above, I would have been

  1. mixing animal and language metaphors (whatever . . .)
  2. communicating fairly well about interpreting music (yay, me)
  3. treading on very thin ice with regard to comparative linguistics (ouch).  Connecting the English “dynamite” or “dynamics” backward to dunamis can “tend to create certain associations in the mind of the modern Bible reader that might have been foreign to the original writers.”  (Silva, p. 45)

Generally, as a teacher, I’m reluctant at times, yet I should probably be more careful than I already am when thinking and teaching about biblical words and their usage.

This has gotten too long, so I’ll continue in a second, summary post on “applied etymology.”

Brian Casey, 2/18-23/2015

1Cor 4:1 — probing translation processes and resources

Following the sharing of my 1Cor 4:1-5 translations, I’d like to explore a bit.

In one sphere, I have submitted to certain translation principles and goals — principles and goals that I support with heart and with gusto — by altering some wordings.  I do think additional considerations are sometimes germane, so I’d like to float some other thoughts here.  This is “thinking out loud” as part of my learning process, mostly; it is not intended to be paradigmatic or prescriptive for anyone else.

Considerable concern¹ has recently resulted from my rendering of the Greek word ὑπηρέτας | hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1.  Let’s investigate this word as an example.

This word hupēretas  is a compound noun.  The first part is, etymologically speaking, a preposition that means “under”; the second part is from a derivative of eresso, which means, roughly speaking, to row.   (See forthcoming comments on etymology and semantic change.)  This word (like most other words to be translated from one language to another!) has no single equivalent, but a range of possible meanings, including those shown below:

  • rower; underling, servant, attendant (Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon)
  • officers, attendants of magistrates, officers who execute penalties; a king’s attendants, servants, retinue, the soldiers of a king (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon)
  • under-rowers, subordinate rowers of Christ (Robertson’s Word Pictures)
  • general idea of “service” (Moulton & Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek NT)
  • servant (Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT Based on Semantic Domains)
  • an under-rower, subordinate rower; anyone who aids another in any work; an assistant.  A closely related verb, hupēreteō, is to act as rower, to row; to minister, to render service (Thayer’s A Greek-English Lexicon)
  • steerer who follows orders as a free person, not a slave (“Little Kittel,” Theological Dictionary of the NT)


While good translation-scholarship, as I understand it currently, will gravitate to certain principles (vis-a-vis choice and use of lexical resources, for example), those principles may not represent the whole picture as one seeks to understand and translate a text for one or more audiences and purposes.

Given my relative inexperience, it’s probably too bold of me to question lexicographers’ choices for specific passages.  By that, I mean that when Thayer (or Liddell-Scott, or whoever) suggests that a given meaning we’ll call “(b)” is the meaning that should be attributed to a word in a given, ancient text, I sometimes wonder what the choice is based on.  Word usage often falls into patterns, and grammatical constructions across a corpus of literature can give strong clues as to the contextual meaning of a word.  In other instances, though, the intended/original meanings might be more elusive.

My growing-but-elementary understanding has begun to put certain lexicons in a more “trusted” category; this trustworthiness stems, in part, from broader scope.  Case in point:  the current Bauer, Dänker, Arndt, & Gingrich or Moulton & Milligan lexical works are considered more trustworthy than some other works because they have taken into consideration a greater number of discovered usages of a given word from more literature, both secular and sacred.

But there is still opinion involved.  Informed opinion, and perhaps extra-informed opinion, but opinion nonetheless.  Based on grammatical construction and extra-biblical literature, a lexicon might suggest that (b) is the best meaning for textual instance #14.  For my part, I wonder whether such a suggestion might turn out to have been a trifle hasty.

Essentially, I wonder whether a lesser reference tool might get a thing right, while the more currently academically accepted lexicons may be found to have missed the boat (rowing reference intended), in their attempts to be more circumspect.  The percentage of likelihood in any given case is not the point here; rather, it’s just that the possibility exists that Robertson or Kittel or Thayer might “get” Paul’s mind in 1Cor 4:1 more than, say, Moulton & Milligan or BDAG (Bauer et al).

Like music-making, linguistic translation is both science and art.  They both involve principles and empirically derived data as well as judgment calls, taste, and aesthetic sensibilities.  One might well be admonished to go with the science when the art appears to conflict, but. . . .

In the next post, I’ll further consider the place (value?) of etymology and will also set up a hypothetical dialogue with Paul, intent on uncovering what he meant by hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1.

¹ “Furor”  was my first word-choice here, but that was too strong a word, inasmuch as it implies a whole horde of people wrangling.  I also rejected “angst” above, but that has certainly been present.  The “concern” is, I suppose, primarily in my head, despite an indication or three to the contrary.  In some senses and in some private instances, I have been misunderstood.  I have apparently not done very well in my attempts to be actively engaged in dialogue.  My own soul is somewhere between grieving and recovering.  There are actually ramifications for my potential work in and for the Kingdom.

Brian Casey, 2/18-23/2015

1Cor 4:1-5 — personal translations

As part of this month’s focus on scripture, I want to share some of my own translation work.  I am finding that the exercise (drill? work? practice?) of translation carries with it more power to get me closer to the text than any other activity I have experienced to date.  Therein lies the primary value, I suspect — it is very personal for me — although there could also be some insight gained by someone who reads and considers the way I’ve translated this or that.

I will also share my renderings of Philemon in a few days.  These translations are works-in-progress — always subject to revision.  The wordings shown below were last revised less than two weeks ago.

Below are my translations of 1Cor 4:1-5, followed by commentary and notes.  Comments are welcome, as is the re-use of these materials.

I. Relatively LiteralSo let everyone[1] deem[2] us subordinate partners of Christ and managing caretakers of God’s disclosed secrets.[4] 2 Furthermore, in our case, it is requisite[5] among the caretakers that one be found trustworthy. 3 But it is negligible[6] for me that I would be judged by you or by a human day in court[7] . . . for I do not assess myself, 4 and I myself am aware[8] of nothing [untrustworthy], but I do not stand justified in this [fact]; rather, judging me is [the prerogative] of the Lord.[9] 5 Therefore, do not assess anything prematurely, before the Lord should come;[10] he will both illuminate the secrets of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts . . . and then the commendation[11] will come to each one from God. [12]  II. Expansive ParaphraseSo let everyone take reality into consideration, regarding us as oarsmen[1] who are subordinate to, and rowing with, Christ our captain—and also as “household managers” of the God-matters designated for insiders.  In thinking of specifically of ourselves as managers, it is a requirement that we be found dependably faithful. 3  But as I myself consider things, it’s inconsequential[2] that we should be judged by you or by contemporary judgment . . . and, come to think of it, I don’t even assess myself; 4 in any event, nothing at all arises in my own consciousness[3] that would suggest anything other than faithful dependability, yet it is not because of this that I stand in an justified state. Actually, it is the Lord who has the prerogative of judging and approving me. . . .  5 Summing up, then:  you must not judge anything before its time—that is to say, not before the coming of the Lord.

He will turn the light on—revealing any hidden dark corners.

He will also display the motives of our hearts.[4]

Then God’s approval—the type that matters—will come to each one.

Rev. 2/10/15

© 2015 Brian Casey.  All rights reserved.  However, any sincere, reasonable request to use one or both of these translations, in whole or in part, or any information from the commentary/notes below, is hereby granted!  (I’d appreciate hearing from you if you save or use this in some way.)

Resource Key

  • BAG57 = Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich lexicon, 1952/57
  • L-N = Louw-Nida
  • MM = Moulton & Milligan
  • RWP = Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament

Commentary and Notes on Literal Translation

Brian Casey, Jan-Feb. 2015

[1] The general “mankind” sense of anthrōpos here is clearly different from, e.g., 7:1.  In keeping with current, common English usage, I’ve rendered the singular anthrōpos as the collective plural “everyone.”

[2] logizesthō, a present middle/passive imperative, seems to have the “intensive” middle sense of emphasizing the agent’s action more than participation in the results.  See above note:  I have opted for the plural sense in the case of the agency.

[4] mysterion—one of only three Pauline uses of this word in the genitive followed by a deity reference. MM provides some intriguing secular context, ultimately emerging with this meaning: “a secret which God wills to make known and has charged His Apostles to declare to those who have ears to hear it.”

[5] hōde loipon — A minority reading is ho de loipon.  ōde seems to denote a concept (“in this/our case”) rather than a locality (“here”).  Some strength in the Greek is to be found in this pairing of terms.  Burton’s Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek shows that the verbs zēteitai (from zēteō) and aphiēmi, usually followed by an infinitive, are each followed one each by ἵνα with the subjunctive,” as it is here in 4:2. BAG57 suggests the sense of “required” as opposed to “sought” or “demanded” here.

[6] elachiston—generally, but not exclusively, a superlative.  See L-N and MM, the latter of which points to 1Cor 15:9 as an example of the true superlative. Cf. 1Cor 6:2, also in a judgment context.

[7] L-N (§ 56.1, Courts and Legal Procedures |A Court of Justice”) gives this rendering: “I am not at all concerned about being judged by you or by any human court.” A differing view is seen in Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament, which suggests a rhetorical contrast between “human day” here and “the Lord’s Day” in 3:13.

[8] MM, LSJ, and Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) suggest that sunoida is a perfective verb used with a present sense.  The word can connote either conscience (NIV and NLT) or conscious awareness (many other English translations), among other subtleties.  Here, either sense (or both) might be indicated.  TDNT notes, apparently with the etymological components in view, that there are two egos at work here:  one that knows and one that shares in the knowledge or consciousness.  For further reading, see TDNT A.1.D. (“When reflection extends to one’s own deeds assessed in connection with human responsibility conscience arises in the moral sense”).

[9] From the last clause of v3 through v4, several facets combine to suggest a chiastic structure:  two reflexive personal pronouns (lines 1 & 2 below), three negations (lines 1, 2, and 3), two perfective verbs at the center (last word of lines 2 and 3), and the contrastive outer senses:  1) Paul’s not judging himself (line 1) and 2) the Lord’s judging Paul (line 4).

ἀλλʼ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἀνακρίνω ·

4 οὐδὲν γὰρ ἐμαυτῷ σύνοιδα,

ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐν τούτῳ δεδικαίωμαι,

ὁ δὲ ἀνακρίνων με κύριός ἐστιν.

[10] The conjunctive use of heōs followed by an and the subjunctive is a grammatical topic of some weight. Taken alone, the deponent erchomai might be said to connote an active sense of a coming-in-progress, whereas the particle and the aoristic aspect of the form elthē seem to suggest something different—combined with a deponent “middle” sense that emphasizes the subject:  ho kurios. The semicolon after this clause suggests a convincing pause after the imperative and the poetic “until the coming of the Lord,” while v5 is still well connected.

[11] epainos is a compound word often rendered “praise,” but in non-deity contexts (such as 1Cor 4:5 and 11:2,7), “commendation” or “approval” seems more apt.  Moreover, since the action of the verb is flowing from God to humankind, it seems better to avoid the connotation of “religious” praise.

[12] Thematic and verbal connections may be observed in Romans 2, viz. judgment in general, God’s judgment of the secrets of men (Rom 2:16, ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ὅτε κρίνει ὁ θεὸς τὰ κρυπτὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου διὰ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ), and commendation from God (Rom 2:29, οὗ ὁ ἔπαινος οὐκ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἀλλʼ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ).  Cf. also 1Cor 14:25: τὰ κρυπτὰ τῆς καρδίας αὐτοῦ φανερὰ γίνεται.

Notes on Expansive Paraphrase

[1] hupēretas is a compound noun, and the second part is from a derivative of eressō.  RWP gives this note on v1:  “The under-rower of Christ has a position of great dignity as steward. . . .”  The juxtaposition of word-concepts here, then, may be intentionally paradoxical: under-rower, dignified house-manager, and care of God’s secrets.  

[2] I suspect there is some Greek emphasis in the combination of estin (a “being” verb) and what RWP refers to as a predicate use of eis that is also found in Hebrew and in the papyri.

[3] Expanding on the suggestion of, e.g., MM and LJS, that sunoida is a perfect used as a present, I have in this paraphrase attempted to combine the aspects here in this paraphrase: “arises” serves as a present tense, while “consciousness” subtly implies a perfected awareness.

[4] The parallel construction here is evident in the two future tenses and the two prepositional phrases with genitives.

Well, to me . . .

This blogmonth is a month of focus — even more than usual — on scripture.  Following all that invective against the continuing use of the KJV, I’m emerging with the similar-but-renewed purpose of spotlighting bad or questionable practices.  In other words, this is kinda the same, but it’s different.

Today’s particular thoughts flowed from two streams, but only one of these is likely to be a) interesting to most and b) intelligibly expressed here.  One stream, related to the dative case in Greek nouns, is therefore relegated to footnote status.¹  In the main “body” below, I’ll stroll alongside the other  stream. . . .

well,to_meIn typical church Bible classes, someone will often pipe up with “Well, to me . . . ” and then proceed to make a statement that can’t be substantiated exegetically or logically.  Although the person means well, is subconsciously trying not to be dogmatic, and may well be a very spiritually minded person, what comes out may be nothing more than a wispy opinion.  In the photo seen here, the gentleman could be making a textually warranted point, given the direction of his eyes.  He also could be about to launch into a baseless opinion.

This latter thing happened recently after I taught a 10-minute spot on 1Thess 4:11-12, relating some specifics about the relationship of six infinitive verbs found there.  I particularly related the syntactical relationship of the words 1) “make it your ambition” and 2) “live a quiet life” (TNIV).  These are verbal infinitives² that come in a uniquely colorful text.

“Quiet life,” in its historical context, is not simple passivity; rather, it has connotations both of active, purposeful philosophizing and non-involvement in political/civic affairs.  In the 1st century, the value of this kind of living pattern was debated.  In addition, the idea in this particular literary context is conjoined with being busy, of working with one’s hands.  Here in 1Thess 4, Paul re-appropriated familiar phrasing about commonly known ideas:  Plato had written something very similar.  Paul was commending “the ‘quiet’ life” to the Thessalonian believers, but “quiet life” meant more than a lack of sound or bustle.

A few minutes after I presented some of these points, which I first learned via the Coffee With Paul Bible study program, this good brother said to the group of about 20, “Well, to me . . .,” (and, upon hearing that introductory phrase, I knew something less than contextually responsible was coming, despite his good spirit) “living a quiet life makes me think of Jesus and the way He had quiet time with God.”

Now, let’s leave alone for the moment the tenuous connection between something like 1.5 mentions of Jesus’ supposed “prayer life” and the current notion in Christendom of “quiet time.”  I’m persuaded that “quiet time” is a good idea — and one I should probably pursue more regularly — but an idea that nevertheless has taken on a life of its own, based largely on preachers, marketers, publishers.  We simply don’t find much of anything in NC scripture about the “quiet time” habit.  But, as I said, let’s leave alone the fact that quiet time, as an institution, is somewhat a human concoction.

The problem with the brother’s comment was that there is no direct verbal or conceptual relationship between prayer in Jesus’ life (whether regular/habitual or sporadic or intentionally occasional) and what Paul was encouraging in 1Thess 4:11-12.

Biblical doctrine must be based on what the Bible actually says.  To understand what the Bible says, we need to stop interrupting God (Greg Fay, thank you, from the bottom of my spirit, for that verbiage) by pre-empting one message and bringing in a concept from a completely separate text.

Next time someone begins a statement in a Bible class with “Well, to me, . . .” know that she is being non-dogmatic (nice!), and be grateful that she is engaged on some level (even nicer!), but beware.  There’s only a 13% chance that the ensuing statement will hold much water.

¹ Now, for the other “stream of thought” that’s really only verbally related.  I have been translating 1Cor 4:1-5 as part of a team project, and I came upon ἐμοὶ | emoi, which is a personal pronoun in the dative case, which tends to imply the indirect object sense, such as occurs in this sentence:  Give the stick to me.  In that example, we may label the parts speech like this:

Imper  article  dir. obj.   prep. indir. obj.
Give   the      stick       to      me.

And in Greek, the “to me” part is often, but not always, expressed in a single word — a dative-case pronoun.

At this point in my Greek language learning, I am less able to deal with the dative noun case than with the nominative, accusative, or genitive cases.  These latter three, more or less, correspond to the subject, the direct object, and the possessive uses of our nouns, respectively.  The dative, as stated above, often implies an indirect object, but I’ve seen probably a dozen other sub-labels for this or that use of the dative — which is just flat annoying.  The whole scenario overwhelms me, so I haven’t expended much effort to get a handle on it.

This particular dative emoi  in 1Cor 4:3 could well be translated “to me,” as many direct objects come out in English.  I am opting for “for me” instead, believing this is a different kind of dative.

I also think “for me” represents better current English usage.  It is a phrase often found in scholarly writing, connoting both openness and studied opinion (in my observation).  To say “For me, grits are a perfectly acceptable alternative to cream of wheat” sounds a bit better than saying, “To me, grits are good.”  Similarly, to say, “For me, worship is more broad than what is implied by ‘contemporary music’ is a better statement than “To me, contemporary worship music is kinda cool, but it represents only a piece of the pie.”


² These infinitives have one antecedent word each, but it is not easy to translate them into English with but one corresponding word.  Another reasonable, substitution for “make it your ambition” might be “aspire ardently.”

Standing alone

Heigh-ho, the derry-o . . .
The cheese stands alone.


from “The Farmer in the Dell”

For a melancholy introvert, standing alone is no uncommon experience.  Among the areas in which I feel increasingly alone is the study of scripture.

In biblical studies, I am coming to know (read that as an intentional use of the imperfect  tense/aspect — I am not in a perfected state of having arrived at the end!) a little more than “just enough to get you in trouble.”  I don’t know how to use all the tools I have available, and sometimes I take the wrong exit ramp or stop at the wrong rest stop in exegetical study, but I am as confident as one can be that I’m on the right road.  It is a lonely highway. . . .

Recently, during Bible class, a very good man (A)

made a very un-good statement. (B)

His statement (C)

reflects the bad ideas (B’)

of lots of other good people out there who read their Bibles.  (A’)

The statement was something like this, in part:  “I’m not very much into the ‘structure’ of Paul’s letters.  I think verses X-Z stand alone.”  And in one fell swoop — and I really don’t think he intended to do this — he undercut the very idea of the importance of literary context.

The indented layout of the five blue lines above shows chiastic arrangement.  Because of my acquaintance with chiasms and my interest in biblical exegesis, and because I felt like using it as an emphatic illustration, I composed that little chiasm (in all of one minute).  It’s cathartic for me, in a way.

This type of arrangement is quite common in ancient texts.  Scholars sometimes disagree on the particulars, but nary a scholar worth his salt denies the prevalence or significance of such things in the rhetorical thought-patterns of the ancients.  In terms of structure, the “text” above is actually very much like something that might be found in a gospel or in one of Paul’s letters.  The emphasis in such a section of text is in the middle—in this case, the statement made by my sibling.  My intent, then, in communicating through the chiastic structure above, is to focus attention on the statement itself, not on the person.  Secondary and tertiary emphases may also be presentsuch as the relationship of bad statements and bad ideas (B and B’ lines).

Anyway, back to the statement itself. . . .  I took it as an expression of some lack of understanding, or maybe some frustration with being confronted with new emphases on context and purposeful literary analysis in Bible study.

The thing is, the statement that “verses X-Z stand alone” was flat wrong, insofar as it went.

The intent of my brother’s heart was completely fine; he was just off-base in suggesting that we might get just as much from a short section by letting it stand alone.

In the course of reading, studying, and coming to understand a literary document, nothing stands alone.

But the cheese and I do stand alone far too often, I think.  Maybe we are limburger.


Two sights

The middle of Mark 8 records an incident in which Jesus healed a blind man in a village called Bethsaida.

The end of Mark 10 records another healing of a blind man.  This one was half-identified as being someone’s son (Bar-Timaeus).

Exegetical insights in the text of Mark reveal that these incidents are part of a larger subsection that essentially constitute the conceptual middle of Mark’s gospel — which is, on one level, a documentary creation.  Some say that these “twin” healings of blind men form an inclusio or “sandwich” structure, part of an overall emphasis that includes the three “passion predictions” in chapters 8, 9, and 10.  The first healing is the one in which the vision came in two stages — first, out of focus, then just read.  The second healing is a bit more pointed in its spiritual implications.  Mark appears to be saying something about the relationship of 1) physical sight and 2) spiritual sight as he paints his overall picture of those — the Master’s disciples — who follow Jesus “along the way.”

John 9 has for decades been a favorite chapter.  It recounts the healing of another blind man and presents powerful portrayals of various characters, including the Jewish leadership, the blind man, and the man’s parents.  I wrote rather extensively, although not particularly conclusively, about that chapter here.  The focus in John 9 ends up on spiritual sight.  I would ask you at least to read Steve’s very meaningful comments on that post, written several months ago.

Moisés Silva¹ has said some important things about historicity of the gospels:

1.  [Speaking of the notion that the “religious teachings” of the Bible may be affirmed while “rejecting its historical claims”]:  “the resulting incoherence is logically unbearable.”

2.  “In the case of the Gospels, every indication we have is that the writers expected their statements to be taken as historical.”  A contrast is subsequently drawn between general events and parables.  In addition, John’s gospel famously includes testimonials that affirm historicity:

“The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.”  (Jn 19:35)

“Jesus did [emphasis mine -bc]” other things that were not recorded.  (Jn 20:31)

3.  There is, still, substantial difference between a) the historical sensibilities of ancient authors and b) the stress placed on “clear and strict chronological sequence” by our contemporary concepts of historicity.

Believers accept that the healings of blind men really occurred.  That historicity is is a given for me, but layers of truth may be present.  While I’m not sure that the Mark healings have quite the same symbolic significance (physical sight ≈ spiritual sight) as the John story has, all three of these show something astounding about our Jesus. 

~ ~ ~

Thus ends a month of blogposts with a “two” motif. 

For February, I have in the preparation stages a few essays on aspects of scripture. 

At some point by March, I want to share some proseuchlations² about sight and focus, sort of picking up where the above post left off.


¹Moisés Silva, “‘But These Are Written That You May Believe’:  The Meaning of the Gospels,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics:  The Search for Meaning, Walter C. Kaiser and Moisés Silva, p. 106.

² I’m coining the difficult-to-pronounce (and probably-better-left-unprounced) term proseuchlation, using part of the Greek root for pray, to describe a prayer-ish contemplation.

Two births

I might more aptly have titled this “Two Generations,” but I didn’t want to imply I was talking about parents/children or genealogy, as such.

It isn’t my intent here to toe any party line (or even to rebel against one) around concepts like regeneration or being “born again” or baptism.  My interest in those things is strong (see footnote 1 for links to prior essays, if interested), and some of that may well be predicted here, but . . . this is intended simply to exegete a short John text within the complete document. 

I find that John 1:13 contrasts two senses of being generated or born.  This text appears (although it might not have been originally scripted  in this sequence) pre-Nicodemus, and long before any 16th- or 19th- or 20th/21st-century concepts, e.g., of being “born again.”

Here is the NASB95 rendering of verses 12-13 together:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And here is my attempt at a word-for-word, interlinear Greek-English rendering of the last part of the same verse:

who   not   out of     bloods
οἳ     οὐκ     ἐξ          αἱμάτων | haimaton — pl., think hematology, the study of blood

not    out of    will              of flesh
οὐδὲ   ἐκ         θελήματος   σαρκὸς | sarkoscf. sarcoma, a flesh-eating tumor

not    out of     will               of man
οὐδὲ   ἐκ        θελήματος     ἀνδρὸς | andros — think androgen, a male sex hormone

but    out of   God’s    generating
ἀλλ᾿   ἐκ        θεοῦ    ἐγεννήθησαν | egennethesan — see below

Although most English translations don’t render these thoughts in a way that shows the parallelism, the connections are there.  The word choices and syntax in this remarkable text are . . . well, remarkable.  So I am remarking!  🙂

The only bona fide verb in 1:13 is the final word.  It comes from γεννάω | gennaoto become the father of, to produce  (BAG Lexicon 1957).  Taking this range of meanings perhaps a step further in English, we might add to generate.  The aorist tense of this verb is not particularly significant; it indicates, relatively simply, that something was done in the past.  The “mood” of the verb is passive, and that aspect seems more significant here:  God is the active agent, and the human is simply the passive  recipient of God’s productive/fatherly action.

The NASB, the NIV, the ESV, and other English translations I glanced at have all opted to insert the idea of being born/birthed at the beginning of this verse.  This word-order inversion isn’t necessarily a bad idea if one is interested in the general import.  It does, however, obscure some of the specific beauty of this text, which contrasts two births/”begettings” and delays mention — with strong effect — of the supernatural one:

  1. the one that arises out of blood, out of flesh, and out of the sexual desire or will² of a male
  2. the one that arises out of God (the last four words in the original)

It appears to me that the idea of being begotten/produced is significant — both in the literary micro-context and in the book-level context of John.  A similar word (see footnote below) is used six times prior to v13.  Furthermore, these notions of being begotten/produced/birthed/generated appear first in v12, with a somewhat related idea in v13, followed by a repetition of the v12 idea in v14:

12 to them He gave the right to become ____,

13 those who have been begotten  by God

14 the word became  flesh

In the above verses, the words for “become” and “begotten” are not the same.  Please see footnote 3 below if interested in more detail here.  At the least, the verbs in vv 12 and 14 are the same, and they flank the important notion of being fathered/begotten by God.  This insight into generative origin may be just as theologically significant as the more-often-quoted, poeticized v14 in its entirety.

Via e-mail, Dr. Paul Pollard has made this observation about the micro-context of v12:  “. . . that for those who have received him (12a), and continue to believe in him (12c), they are entitled to become God’s children (12b).  Verse 13a then shows that becoming the children of God is not by appeal to family connections, or genealogy. . . .”  Exegetically derived points such as this are always, always helpful in our efforts to read the text — and to hear God — more thoroughly.

The word ἀλλ’ | all’  (the antecedent of “but” at the beginning of the last phrase in v13) is considered to set up a strong contrast with what has gone before.  There is another word that could have been used here, if the contrast weren’t so clear-cut, so emphatic.  What the text of John has is something like this (ignore the redundant English, if you please):  ” . . . but instead were begotten by God.”

The two kinds of begettings/births are distinct.  It is my hope that this little insight about God’s action in spiritual birth has brought someone closer to this great Father.  It has done that for me when I needed it today — to the point that I regret that I now need to do some work that I get paid to do.

Brian (1/9/15)

¹ Here are three links that refer to, and/or attempt to explicate, portions of the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus:

That Christianese wasn’t original with John

Rebirth, as Jesus taught it

The misread part of John 3

² Here, some might choose the word “lust” for “will” or “desire” — but presumably not in a negative sense.  Immediately prior, “flesh” appears to be used without the later, negative Docetist or Pauline connotation — e.g., in Romans 7 and 8, where it is contrasted with the πνεῦμα | pneuma (spirit) nature.  It is significant that, in the next verse, Jesus is said to have become (ἐγένετο | egeneto)  flesh.  Neither flesh nor a man’s will appears to be cast negatively here.

³ The ice is getting thin, and my ear for similar sounds and potential Greek etymological connections has gotten me in trouble before, but the ideas of the ginomai and gennao word families seem related.  In other words, to become (a being verb) seems possibly connected to the original begetting, which endowed them with the right to become/be in the first place.  I am becoming damp here and may soon be “all wet” — and not just for mixing English ice/water metaphors.  🙂  The abridged Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT gives this gloss for ginomai (vv 12 and 14):  “to be born” (adding very little other than the mention of John 8:58 — ” . . . before Abraham was born, I am“), where both the contrast and connection again appear).  Kittel’s gloss for gennao (v13) is “to bear, beget.”  Moreover, in Warren Trenchard’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament, these two words are shown in the same “cognate word group.”  Essentially, I would suggest that, though the two verbs may be as distinct as the two births I’m attempting to delineate, the verb-concepts are at least syntactically related in John.