A Pedantic Rant on the Translation of a Greek Word

In 1 Corinthians 1:20 Paul asks ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου;

The NIV translates “Where is the philosopher of this age?”  A more accurate translation is “debater.”  Bruce Winter, in his book After Paul Left Corinth describes how the movement known as the “Second Sophistic” affected the Roman city of Corinth.

Earlier, in the time of Socrates the first Sophistic movement entered Athens.  The Sophists taught eager young men–for a good fee–the arts of being successful.  Success for these ambitious students who hoped to move quickly up the ladder in politics meant learning the art of persuasion, how to sway a crowd with moving words and convincing arguments.  It didn’t matter if the arguments were true, what does that have to do with winning?

It was on that point that Socrates disagreed with the Sophists.  How do you know what success is, if you don’t care about truth?  How can a life be called successful if it is based on sleazy manipulation?

Four hundred and fifty years later the Sophistic movement gained a new life and the Sophists came to Corinth.  A teacher would advertise a sample oration or debate (in which vicious insults was often the key to defeating his opponents) and then would enroll tuition paying students in the full course.

Once more the philosophers and the Sophists became bitter enemies.  That’s why the NIV translation in this verse is historically inaccurate.  It is also misleading.  It gives the impression that St. Paul is anti-intellectual.

Paul is attacking pride in human accomplishments and the idea that life is a struggle of all against all, a contest to be won at any cost and by any means.  That is what the “debater” represents.  It is also what the system he calls “the world” represents.  It’s what we used to call the establishment, the machine, or the Man.

But Paul is not attacking clear thinking or clear and effective communication.

Philippians 1:2-11

1:2 Timothy joins Paul in a customary but genuine prayer for the Philippians to experience God’s grace and peace.  Grace is God’s love in action, empowering, uplifting, redeeming, and enabling us.  Peace is the state of harmony and well being that was God’s original intention for all his creation.  These blessings come from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who are inseparably linked together.

1:3-6 Paul now adds his own prayer, though Timothy of course would join in spirit and add his amen.  I thank my God at every memory of you, or “every time I remember you.”  Paul no doubt continued to observe the Jewish practice of having set hours of prayer every day, but he also “practiced the presence of God,” living his life in a continued awareness of God’s presence.  In this sense, it is possible to pray without ceasing, to pray with one’s eyes open, to pray short prayers specifically for others whenever you think of them.  Prayer for others is not a burden but a joy, and since we cross paths with so many others we can never run out of people to pray for.

When we pray for others, we are sometimes disappointed and we may wonder “What good does prayer do?”  Prayer is first of all a way of caring, a way of sharing someone else’s burden.  It is also true that sometimes surprising things happen when we pray.  Prayer is also a way of tuning our hearts to God.  As we become more experienced in prayer and walking with God our prayers will become more and more in line with God’s desires, and we should expect to see more and more of our prayers answered.

Paul is thankful for the community’s participation (koinoniain the Gospel from the first day until now.  Koinonia refers to the spiritual fellowship we have with each other and to the active participation and sharing in an activity.  When Paul first came to Philippi he received hospitality from Lydia and the jailor, and many other unnamed believers.  They had also contributed financially to Paul’s mission in other places and had continued that support in his imprisonment.  They had experienced the blessings that come from the Gospel.  They had shared the Good News with their neighbors and continued to do so in spite of opposition.  The Gospel is the news of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ God had fulfilled the promises found in Isaiah:

You who bring good tidings to Zion . . . lift up your voice with a shout . . . say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”  See the Sovereign LORD comes with power . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd (Is 40:9-11).

Paul had seen the evidence of God’s work in their hearts, and he was convinced that God would finish what he started and they would be found strong and faith on the day when Jesus Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, to renew the earth, uniting heaven and earth, to call the wicked to account, and to reward the faithful.

Salvation is God’s work, and God can be trusted to finish what he starts.  A Christian should never be presumptuous–God expects us to participate in what he is doing in our lives.  But we should never be anxious.  We have good reason to have confidence in God.  It is true that we can never see completely into another person’s heart, and that people often surprise and disappoint us.  But we can see on people’s faces and in their actions a consistency in spiritual growth (or lack thereof).  Paul had seen the reality of their faith and has good reason for confidence in them personally.

1:7 Therefore he adds, it is right for me to think this way for all of you because I have you in my heart.  Greek is often more precise than English, but in this case it is more ambiguous.

Paul uses an infinitive construction in which the subject and object both use the same grammatical form (the accusative), so the last clause could also be translated, “because you have me in your heart.”  A painfully literal translation would be “because of the to have me in the heart you.”

The immediately following context would support the translation “because you have me in your heart,” but recent research into the usage of infinitive clauses tends to support “because I have you in my heart” as the translation.  Both ideas are true, but Paul probably had one in mind.

Paul’s confidence in them is based on the personal relationship he has with them and the knowledge he has of their character.  They have been partners with him in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel as well as in his imprisonment.  The work of the Spirit of Christ in their lives manifested in “the fruit of righteousness” is the confirmation of the Gospel.  Their confession of faith and steadfast faithfulness is their participation in the defense of the Gospel.  The best apologetic is a believing community from whose lives flows the love of God.

1:8God is my witness” is an oath.  Paul evidently did not see this as a contradiction of Jesus’ words “let your yes be yes.”  Paul uses this kind of oath when he wants to express something strongly, sometimes when his motives or truthfulness has been challenged.  Here the physical separation caused by his imprisonment causes a frustration that leads Paul to say, “God is my witness how I long for all of you with the passionate affection of Christ.”  The Greek word splankhna, refers literally to the organs in the chest (lungs, spleen, liver, etc.) where emotion is deeply felt.  Metaphorically it conveys intense compassion or affection, so I have translated it “passionate affection.” Maybe “the passion of Christ” would convey the idea just as well.

Bible translators tell amusing stories about where in the anatomy emotions are perceived to be experienced in different cultures.  Some peoples say “I love you with my kidneys,” for example.  (The expression found in the KJV certainly is not help for today’s readers.)

1:9-11  Paul summarizes his personal prayer for them:

  1. that your love may overflow more and more.  Here agape expresses a deep concern for the well being of other people, their spiritual as well as physical well being, now and into eternity, that unconditionally seeks their best interest, while respecting their integrity as free and responsible individuals.  Believers are commanded and empowered to love one another and to love their enemies with this kind of Christ-like love.
  2. in all knowledge and ethical sensitivity.  The word aisthesis (whence the English aesthetic) indicates perception, insight, and moral sensibility.
    • A rabbi dealing with an ethical issue today illustrates this kind of sensitivity with a parable: “A woman comes to me with a question about a chicken).  I ask her to tell me about her life, her family . . . ”  What he means is that he will not apply a cookie-cuter ruling to everyone.  It depends on the need of her family and her financial resources.  If they are a poor family, rather than letting the children go hungry, the rabbi will find a way to make the chicken kosher.  If she is wealthy he will say, “just buy another chicken.”
    • The teaching in the Bible is written to help us form this kind of ethical sensitivity.  It is not to give us dueling verses or a weapon to bash people over the head with.
  3. so that you will think critically and make the best decisions,
    • The verb dokimazo means examine, test, prove, or approve; ta diaphoranta the things that are distinguished, excellent, preferred.  In the context of “knowledge and ethical sensitivity” Paul is referring to critical thinking and learning from experience.
    • Love that overflows needs to be guided by wisdom, knowledge, experience, and critical thinking to produce results that really benefit the ones loved.
  4. and so you will be pure and blameless in the day of Christ,
    • Clear thinking and wisdom that comes from experience will also help followers of Christ examine their own motives and actions so they can avoid self-deception and falling into harmful patterns of behavior.
    • On the day Christ is revealed to the world, there will be no partiality: regardless of religion and nationality every person will be held accountable for the life he or she has lived.  All will have to answer how they have responded to the gifts and opportunities they have been given and to the needs they have faced or avoided.
    • Those who turn to God and seek forgiveness can be assured of receiving it.  However, we would hope to have more to show on the day of judgment than a blank slate.  How have we treated those considered “least” by the world but “brothers or sisters” by Jesus?  Have we loved God with pure hearts?
    • There is a paradox here, of course.  Those who do the right thing from pure motives will be rewarded: but having pure motives means not seeking a reward.
  5. filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ and returns to the glory and praise of God.
    • Through faith we are united to Christ and his righteousness becomes ours.  We are “counted righteous” by God and, as we become aware of the presence of Christ in our lives, we become more righteous in our motives and behavior.
    • The fruit of righteousness is the natural outgrowth of a relationship with God.  It consists of qualities such as “love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, gentleness,” the renunciation of violence or revenge, seeking to live at peace with all people, and similar Christ-like behaviors, attitudes, and commitments.  See Rom 12:9-21; 14:17-18; Gal 5:22-23.
    • God is glorified when hurting people are healed, when those who are lost are found; when people find wholeness and salvation through a relationship of faith and love with God through Jesus Christ, when children, women, and men understand and respond to God’s love for them.

“Not Even Wrong” is an expression Christopher Hitchens was fond of.  I believe the original expression was “not even false.”  The idea comes first from analytic philosophy, according to which some statements are true, others are false, and others are merely nonsensical.  This idea was taken over into science where it led to the idea that a theory must be testable and, at least in principle, “falsifiable.”  If there is no way a theory could be tested and produce a result that is either true or false, it is “not even false,” it is a worthless theory.

In this sense, two ideas commonly asserted by the aggressive atheists of this new millennium are not even false.

  1. The first is the idea that faith and reason are irreconcilable opposites, that faith requires one to leave his shoes and his mind at the door.  In fact faith requires critical thinking.  I don’t want to promote stereotypes, even positive ones, but everyone knows Jews have been disproportionately overachievers in academics.  Could it be because centuries of debate over the meaning of the commandments in the Torah have created a culture of critical thinking?  Could it be that teaching that study (even secular study) is an act of devotion to God have created a climate that values the intellect?
  2. The second is the idea that Christians serve God out of cringing fearor for base motives of a future reward, that they live a life of drudgery mindlessly following rules and regulations first formulated in the bronze age.  This total misunderstanding of the motivation for Christian behavior so misses the point that it is not even wrong, it is not even close to reality.
    • Unfortunately there are Christians who share the above misunderstandings.  Religion in general does poison nearly everything, it constantly distorts the reality of the relationship God desires to have with us.  From Genesis to Revelation, the prophets and apostles of God fight against religion as it is actually practiced by most of mankind in their day, including those who understand themselves to be the people of God.

Hermeneutics for the Crazy

Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; specifically hermeneutics is often used in reference to the interpretation of the Bible.  When I teach the subject, the first rule I teach is one not found in most hermeneutics text books, but familiar to medical students:

Primum non nocere; First do no harm.

James, who grew up in the same house with Jesus, taught that religious teachers will be subject to stricter judgment.

I wonder, how responsible teachers and preachers are for the way the mentally disturbed take their words.  The LA Fitness murderer is quoted as saying that at the church he once attended the pastor taught that even a mass murderer can go to heaven.  The pastor never said that, but George Sodini said it was implied by the church’s teaching that sinners may be forgiven by grace through faith apart from any works needed to earn their salvation.

Of course, Sodini dropped out of church three years ago–so you can’t say his attempt at mass murder was inspired by last Sunday’s sermon.  His internet comment was part of a bitter rant against religion.

But what about the traditional protestant doctrine of justification by faith?  Does it in fact encourage cheap grace?  Is salvation a legal fiction, or does it involve God’s work of transforming our lives to make us responsible, compassionate adults?

Does a teacher of Scripture or the way of faith have a responsibility to think about ways teachings could be misconstrued.? Yes.  Maybe you can’t predict all possible ways a deranged mind could get it wrong–but at least teachers have to think about possible implications and misunderstandings.

When teaching on the book of Proverbs I have often done an informal survey.  I ask,

What percentage of men have an anger control problem?

The first time I asked this question I naively thought the answer would be about 5%.  Instead I consistently get figures of 50 to 75 %.  I was prepared to go with the low number.  My followup question was to be this:

Suppose there are 5 men present who have anger control problems, and they hear a message on the text, “If you beat your son, he won’t die”–what will they do with it?

My point is, that a man who can’t control his anger has no business using corporal punishment (if anyone does) as a way of teaching children.  A responsible teaching on the theme of “the rod of correction” in Proverbs would have to deal with the poetic imagery of the rod, the historical and social realities of Iron-Age Israel, and the potential of disturbed individuals to put a crazy twist on something.

Evidently the murderer of George Tiller took the comparisons of the abortion doctor to Hitler with deadly seriousness.  According to Dr Warren Hern, The Last Abortion Doctor, the murder of Dr. Tiller was “the logical consequence of thirty-five years of hate speech.”   Can one be pro-life without encouraging murder?

There are passages in the New Testament that refer to an evil figure called “The Man of Lawlessness,” the “Beast” or the “Antichrist.”  I believe these passages refer to one or more violent messianic pretenders or perhaps one of the more deranged Roman Emperors–in other words a historical figure from the first century.  Nevertheless, many people think these passages refer to someone yet to come.

The world has certainly seen its share of evil leaders, of anti-messianic tyrants, and it is always good to be on our guard.  I think a good theme song is “We don’t get fooled again.”

But a perverse twist on the Scriptures that warn against violent deceivers is using them to feed conspiracy theories.    Snopes has been a reliable source of debunking urban legends, modern myths, and fantastic conspiracy theories.  It has effectively debunked some of the myths and lies about president Obama.  But now–it should have been predictable–the conspiracy mongers are saying that Snopes is part of the conspiracy.

I heard once of a psychiatric patient who was convinced he was dead.  His psychiatrist thought of a novel approach.  He got the patient to agree that dead men don’t bleed.  Then he poked the patient with a needle and drew blood.  The man’s eyes got wide and he said,

Well, what do you know, dead men do bleed.!

Does Using the Interstate Highways Make Me a Socialist?

Last weekend I went on a road trip with some of my fellow faculty and students.  We enjoyed passing through parts of six states on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system.  I was about five months old when the Republican president from Abilene signed the bill that made the interstate highway system possible.

Was it socialism?  If socialism means centralized planning, massive public (i.e., taxpayer) investment, and government control–then the interstate highways were absolutely an experiment in socialism.

Think of how the private economy could have built a highway system.  Landowners could have built roads on their own property and chosen whether to retain the exclusive use or to lease or sell access.  They could have negotiated agreements with their neighbors.

Or corporations could have attempted to buy up long contiguous strips of land and build private highways.  They could then sell access for a profit.

When you think through all the ramifications, it is hard to think of any practical way that private initiative and private funding could have built the kind of highway system we have today.

A little more than fifty years ago our president and congress made the decision to provide every citizen with universal access to travel in every state. They even have interstate highways in Hawaii–think about that!

Acquiring the land did require federal seizure of private property.  Therefore, building the Interstate Highway System was promoted as a military necessity.  The main impact, however, has been economic rather than military.

The internate highway system was a massive project in social engineering, involving a massive public investment of funds–and it has been a massive financial success.  Nearly all of the growth in prosperity in the past fifty years has been directly or indirectly related to the interstate highways.

But now it is time for a new economy not based on the automobile.  Is it time for a new investment in the future?

Money that is wasted by short-sided politicians will certainly be a drain on my grandchildren.  But wise investment in the future could lead to increased prosperity for the next generations.

A year ago I visited the decaying ruins of state socialism in countries formerly dominated by the Soviet Union.  I don’t want any part of that.  But I also don’t want to label any public investment in the future as socialism.  Someone has to rebuild the infrastructure, fund education, and prepare the way for the economy of the future.

On Not Irritating People

A couple years ago I asked a good friend of mine, someone who has a lot practical wisdom, whether I should take a stand more often and be more willing to enter controversy.  I said I was afraid sometimes by failing to speak up, I let bad ideas go unchallenged.  He said there are quiet ways to make a point.  He said,

There are enough people in the world irritating other people.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced he’s right.  I will go on trying to make positive suggestions in a gentle way, but I think I will try to avoid sarcasm–it’s so hard to tell someone’s “tone of voice” in writing.

I also think I will avoid politics, mostly, for the next four years.  The election is over and the people have spoken.  I will write my representatives and talk to people on a local level.

I will say this: I think President Obama is doing his best to bring people together.  Politics is inherently divisive, but he has tried to extend an open hand across the aisle.  If his gestures have been met with a clenched fist, he keeps on smiling.  I thought last night’s speech was remarkably free of blame and bitterness.

Winning the Cold War

Putin

Ronald Reagan won the cold war against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union by forcing that empire into bankruptcy. There were other forces at work, not least the force of prayer, but I want to focus on the economic facts. First a little history:

In 1973 OPEC put an oil embargo on the US which resulted in an energy crisis. The price of gasoline shot up to 65 cents a gallon, more than double what we were used to paying. Richard Nixon was too preoccupied with his own political survival to do much about it.

But beginning in 1976 Jimmy Carter did. He went on TV wearing a sweater as a symbolic gesture, and he put solar collectors on top of the white house. We started driving smaller cars, we started car pooling, building earth contact homes with wood stoves for heat–we started doing lots of things to conserve energy. We even learned to drive 55 mph on the highways (although everyone hated it).

And something amazing happened. We showed OPEC we could do without them (in the same way we showed England, 200 years earlier, we could do without their tea). The price of oil plummeted. It went so low that a lot of oil men (including many in Texas) lost their fortunes.

Then we got complacent. Ronald Reagan removed those “ugly” solar collectors from the white house. Eventually the 55 mph speed limit was repealed, and Detroit found their cash cow in the SUV.

Meanwhile, back in the 80s, the Soviet Union had gotten bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan, and Reagan ratcheted up the arms race. It seemed like a dangerous escalation at the time. Jonathan Schell had to write The Fate of the Earth to explain why the total annihilation of all life on the earth would be a bad thing. But Reagan’s plan must have worked–we are still here to talk about it. (More on Jonathan Schell here.)

The Soviet Union went broke. They couldn’t keep up. We outspent them. They tried a few modest reforms, hoping that a little openness and a light taste of freedom might stimulate some economic growth. But a little freedom is hard to contain–and the rest is history.

Where are we now? We are in a multi-trillion dollar war in Iraq that is sucking the national economy into a recession–some are even beginning to whisper the D-word. It may have been a noble experiment, this venture to bring democratic enlightenment to the middle east, but evidently we can’t afford it.

Could some of it be waste? Maybe. I think the small college where I teach could use the $132,000.00 per month that is being spent on “runway snow removal” for the airport in Baghdad. I’ve never been there myself, but surely there must be at least a couple months a year when it doesn’t snow in Baghdad. (On the cost of the war, click here.)

But those smart bombs are expensive, as are the private contractors–Blackwater employees are paid up to ten times the salary of U.S. military personnel–but we have to showed those Iraqi’s how free enterprise works.

Meanwhile back at the Kremlin: it turns out democracy and freedom weren’t so hot after all. The Russians love Putin (whose method of solving a hostage crisis is to kill the hostages), and they are no doubt comforted to know that even though he is no longer president, he will be pulling strings from behind the scenes.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was a little talk of some kind of Marshal Plan for the former Soviet Union, but no checks were ever written.

But we did find another way to help them. Russia is swimming in oil, and our insatiable thirst along with the, uh, instability in the Persian Gulf, is keeping oil above $100.00 per barrel, and we are getting used to the idea of paying $4.00 per gallon.

So, here we are making Putin’s empire rich and bankrupting ourselves. It’s like someone had taken a videotape of history, and starting around 1991, put it on rewind.

Next time you fill up your tank, just imagine those icy blue eyes watching.

Every Idle Word

Michelle Obama
“I meant to say, as proud”
There’s is a verse in the Bible that says we will have to give account for every idle word we say.
It is true in politics. Sometimes words matter.

I find it interesting that sometimes a single idle word can destroy a political career, while at other times politicians have recovered from a faux pas.

Back in the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter remarked that sometimes it is desirable to preserve the “ethnic purity” of a neighborhood. To some that sounded racist, like an endorsement of segregation. Candidate Carter recovered by saying, “I meant ethnic heritage.”

Some politicians are so famous for slips of the tongue that, like Yogi Bera (“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”) they are given a pass. Purists cringe when they hear the pronunciation nuc-you-ler, but it never cost George W. Bush a vote. Dan Quayle was quoted as saying, before a trip to Latin America, “I wish I had studied Latin harder in high school.” He was ridiculed, but his lapses like that, or inability to spell potato, are probably not what cost him and George H. W. Bush the re-election.

Jesse Jackson’s political ambitions were hurt by a careless ethnic slur. Trent Lott was forced to resign when he made a flattering comment at Strom Thurmond’s one-hundredth birthday party. He said if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 the nation might have been spared “all these problems.” He forgot that Thurmond had run on a segregationist platform; and some journalists fluent in Southern speech detected a veiled euphemism in the cirumlocution “all these problems.”

The most striking case of a careless word derailing a promising career was Howard Dean’s “I have a scream” speech. He was not undone by a racial slur, or in fact by a word that offended anyone. It was the rising intonation of his “Yeah!” at the end of a geographical litany, that seemed undignified. For his exuberance, he was ridiculed into oblivion.

Maybe Michelle Obama simply left out a word. Maybe she meant to say, “I’ve never been as proud of my country as today.” Will she recover? Evidently the remark didn’t hurt her husband in the elections yesterday.