Tag Archives: biblical accuracy

Book Review: Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan

This wasn’t a book that appeared on my reading list or that I picked up at random from wandering around a bookshop. It was a birthday present which I have only just got round to reading (my birthday was back in the autumn). My dad thought it seemed up my street as he had picked it for free in a clearance from a local Salvation Army centre.

The opening hypothesis poses this problem: a catholic, a Jew and a protestant walk into a bookshop and each says they want the whole bible and nothing but the bible. What does the bookseller provide to each?

Here, we come across a problem straight away which I must tackle. Pelikan regards catholicism and protestantism as two wings of one christianity, instead of being different faiths. For my part I always try not to conflate the two, so will hereafter refer to ‘catholicism’ and ‘christianity’ as being two distinct, though related, religions. (For more on catholicism, see here, for why I don’t use the term protestant, see here). He also uncritically uses the catholic (mis)understanding of Peter’s declaration of Jesus as being the Messiah as meaning that the church is to be founded on Peter, as opposed to the christian understanding that the declaration itself is what is foundational.

With that critique out of the way, what of the main substance of the book? For the most part, it is a history of how the bible has come about.  Having stated a critique, I must praise the writing style. Pelikan is great communicator and this is an excellently written book. It is well-researched and communicated in an engaging way. At no point did I feel bored or find the text to be turgid.

In terms of the details, what does Pelikan present us with? We open with “The God who speaks” where we note how the origins of the bible are in oral history and that to focus on written works is a relatively late development. Though it stops short of being a full-blown treatment of form-criticism, it serves as a useful reminder of the origins of belief where, unusually (but not unwelcome) for a nominally christian work, there is a highly sympathetic treatment given to the oral beginnings of Islam.

From here, the focus is the origins of Judaic writings, with a particular focus on the Torah and how it was used by the communities to which it related, along with the body of writings that accompanied it by way of interpretation. The challenge posed to the reader is an implicit dig at the notion of sola scriptura, though Pelikan is always quite sideways in his criticisms.

Moving from the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) to the New Testament, there is disappointingly little with regards to the actual composition of the texts, with the focus more on how the canon of the New Testament slowly formed. Though the endnotes cite Bruce Metzger his work, monumental to this field of study, is never directly referenced; neither is F.F. Bruce, which seems rather odd. In the discussion itself, there is a distinct downplaying of the role of Marcion in the idea of forming a new canon in the first place. So while Pelikan presents a well-written account of the evidence he chooses to submit, this reviewer felt that the evidence was somewhat cherry-picked so as to suit the narrative that Pelikan had chosen.

Likewise, as he guides us through several centuries of work, with a particular (and right) emphasis on Jerome’s Vulgate, when we get to the reformation, we again find a distinct downplaying of the crucial modes of thinking that led to the more protestant views of the bible, not least as a reaction against the medieval catholicism that was prevalent at the time. So while we are presented with a vague discussion over Jerome’s poor translation, don’t expect many details and don’t expect an account of the murder of William Tyndale.

Up to now, we have been dealing with translations of translations. But even the most biased of historians could not avoid the influence of the renaissance on the reformation, where the cry of “back to the source” was shouted out loud. And so with reformed christianity came a desire to study the Greek and do the best justice to the original meanings, a task which continues to this day.

In conclusion, what we have is an incomplete account. Though well-written, I could not help but see massive gaps and an over-sympathetic treatment to the mistaken views of catholicism, though from a cursory reading about Pelikan it seems he adopted Eastern Orthodoxy about 10 years before writing this book. Though this has been a fairly critical review, I would recommend the book to you, not least to see how an anti-reformationist might think. Though for a more holistic take, I would recommend follow-ups with works of F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger and Alister McGrath.

The one point on which I would say I vehemently agreed with him was on the nature of prophecy not as being one of ‘foretelling’ but of ‘telling forth’ which he puts rather brilliantly.

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Book Review: The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles by P.N. Harrison

My motivation for reading this book came from a post from Gurdur where he stated:

 “A fair bit formally credited to him is not his work (probably 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews not being his)”

It was by no means the first time I’ve heard that stated, but wanted to do was examine the evidence. Where I looked around for references, all I could see were references to “most scholars” or some very vague hand-wavey arguments. It was surprisingly hard to pin down anything resembling original research. Eventually, all the roads that didn’t lead to dead ends ultimately ended up at this book.

It is free to download, but I’m not a fan of e-books so it has taken several months to find a long enough weekend (I read this over Easter) to read the ~200 page pdf file on my laptop.

The opening section contains a very brief outline of the “problem” which forms the title of the book and the approach that the author intends to take in order to tackle the problem.

The problem is stated as the questions over who wrote the books (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus), when were they written and why were they written. Harrison states that his technique is to be open-minded and to review the evidence as independently as possible, without giving any reverence or special treatment to any one point of view. However, he goes straight from this into his giving his conclusion which, in summary, is that Paul did not write the entirety of the books but that they were written by a follower of his in the early 2nd century who had access to some personal notes that Paul did write to Timothy and Titus, where phrases from these are incorporated into the letters as we presently know them.

So that problem that the reader is faced with from the outset is that we have an author who professes all the right things we want to hear for an ‘objective’ view of history but who in the next breath disregards this with a piece of polemic setting out his conclusions in advance of the evidence. To me, it doesn’t matter that he comes out against Pauline authorship, the verdict on the scholarship would be the same if he had pre-emptively concluded in favour of Pauline authorship. The rest of the book then set about trying to give justification for these views.

The main argument focuses on what Harrison refers to as Hapax Legomena, which is a shorthand of saying words which appear in the Pastoral epistles which don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament (NT). Of course, this refers to the number of Greek words rather than any translation. Curiously the statistical basis on which this is based is the number of such words per page. This is then reliant on the particular edition used and appears quite arbitrary. Another analysis referred to, which Harrison rightly disparages, is the number of unique words per chapter. This is course is dependent on the arbitrary chapter divisions which was made much later than the composition of the letters. Yet the irony of using the number of words on a page is lost on Harrison. It seems to me much more reasonable that the rate of unique words per 1,000 would be much more specific and comparable with other works.

In short, the number of unique words per page in the pastoral epistles is much higher than in the rest of the Paul’s works. There is also a brief discussion on apparent “omissions” where words and phrases (very commonly ‘connecting’ words) which are common in the rest of Paul’s works are not present in the Pastorals.

With the arbitrary nature of the statistical analysis aside, there are plenty of other objections that may be raised against Harrison’s hypothesis and he does duly take note of some of these. Those that jumped to my mind included:

  • The fact that the Pastorals were written to individuals whereas most of the rest of the Pauline letters were to churches.
  • The subject matter of the pastorals is very different from the rest of the Paul’s writings, so it should be no surprise that a slightly different vernacular is used.
  • There is no comparison to other writers and how their usage of words varies across their works.
  • The real significance of the variances considering that the whole of Paul’s recorded works is really very small, especially when considered against the Lucan corpus or the collected works of any other contemporary writers.
  • The assumption in the statistical analysis that what we have preserved represents the entirety of Paul’s writings.

Harrison attempts to answer some of these critiques, but not all. For those that he does tackle, his treatment is not convincing. In his response to the first point, he points out the example Philemon, which was written to an individual. This is, however, the shortest of Paul’s writings and so to draw on that as a source of statistical significance seems suspiciously spurious.

Harrison also tries to address the second, but the argument presented carries no weight, moves to a side-issue and never actually answers the challenge.

For the third point, he makes of comparison with Shakespeare, where a similar analysis has been done. Now the results of the Shakespeare survey does in fact show the same level of variance between his plays as Paul’s writings does (including the Pastoral epistles). This would seem to counteract Harrison’s proposition, though his defence is that the Shakespeare model has a fairly continuous range, with the number of unique words per page not only spanning a range, but filling it is as well. The contrast with Paul is that there appears to be one range for 10 of his letters and then a large jump to the Pastorals; a fact which is demonstrated by numerous graphs.

The fourth and fifth points are never addressed and so any meaningful statement of significance is somewhat lacking.

Moving on from this, Harrison looks at a collection of 2nd century christian writers. This is to look at his conclusion (determined before the examination, remember) that the pastoral epistles were composed in the 2nd century. Here, there is some consideration given to the paucity of writings we have available, though interestingly he never considers alternative 1st & 2nd century writers other than those of the New Testament. For example, I would have considered it reasonable to compare Pauline grammar with that of Josephus and Tacitus, but they are noticeable by their absence from this analysis. At least these would form a better comparison than Shakespeare, writing around a millenium & a half later.

The other point that Harrison misses is that Paul was a significant thought-leader of his time. So the fact that some of his grammatical structures appear to have parallels in 2nd century writings could indicate that it wasn’t necessarily composed then, but rather that there is possibility that those who followed adopted Paul’s pioneering writing style.

The last section of the book is very different in character. Here, Harrison posits that the pastoral epistles, and in particular 2 Timothy, contain some of Paul’s genuine writings. He does this by posing further questions on the authenticity of the composition of the writings. Specifically, he asks when and where they were written. First and foremost in his crosshairs is the idea that Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome and that the letters were written during the 2nd imprisonment. In outline, the idea is that the details of the 2nd imprisonment are so closely aligned with the 1st so as to the make them indistinguishable and therefore show that they were in fact one and the same.

Having ‘plucked out’ the genuine elements of 2 Timothy, Harrison then constructs what he believes to be Paul’s actual writing before giving a short commentary on this passage.

Conclusion

I do not find Harrison’s conclusions to be as firmly grounded as he does. That is not to say that I affirm the Pastoral Epistles are unquestionably 100% Paul’s writings. This work does provide evidence which casts doubt on such a proclamation. Yet the evidence presented fails to take into account the relative paucity of the volume of the writings and the comparisons made to other writers (such as Shakespeare). As such the declaration that the vast majority of the work are not of Paul’s origin and that only a small section of 2 Timothy may be rightly credited to him is unconvincing.

So where does that leave us? I neither confirm nor deny Paul’s authorship of these letters. I remain with doubts in my mind and have not seen any evidence presented here or elsewhere to push me off the fence on direction or another.

Book Review: The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg

I was first made aware of this book a few years ago when I read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. For those unfamiliar with that book, the author is a former journalist who wanted to examine the evidence for the claims of the gospels by interviewing various christian scholars. One of the first experts Strobel interviews was Craig Blomberg, who refers to The Historical Reliability of the Gospels several times. The version I read was a later addition, and has clearly undergone some revisions. For starters, the version I read referenced books written after The Case For Christ was published.

To begin with, you have to note what this book is and what it is not. Blomberg deals with this question at the start of the book. He is only interested in the historical side of the gospels. Of course, from this stems the theological aspect, but that is not the aim of the book. He also restricts his view to look at the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John; there is very little by way of discussion of the rest of the New Testament, though I personally felt that it would have been apposite to include a look at Acts as well, given that that is the only historical book of the New Testament. Yet it has been left to a very brief discussion at the end of the book.

What follows is a work which summarises the scholarship of others, leaning heavily on the work Gospel Perspectives (which Blomberg contributed to, amongst others). He begins by looking at the general methods for the historical study of the gospels. These include harmonisation, redaction criticism and form criticism. Here, I felt Blomberg was fairly even-handed and gave praise to each methodology where due and criticism where it was deserved.

He demonstrates that he is not afraid to tackle potentially thorny issues head-on as from here he launches straight into the issue of miracles. He lays out various objections that one may have to believing the miracle stories of the gospels and then sets about his task of trying to show why they may be considered reasonable. It is here that I began to diverge from Blomberg. It seems his conclusions were reached before doing any research, though one may have guessed this from the outset. Personally, I found the chapter quite unconvincing and the arguments put forward fairly weak. That’s not to say I think it is without merit, but merely that his conclusions do not resonate with the evidence he presents. Central to this, and central to all of christian belief is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Though multiple references are made to the recent magnum opus on this topic, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God , I felt that Blomberg’s case was too watered down. If it doesn’t convince me, a believer (albeit one not to taking to believe anything that confirms my viewpoint) I strongly doubt it would convince even the most open-minded of sceptics.

From here, he then widens his viewpoint to look at contradictions between the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), though he acknowledges at the start that there are so many “supposed” contradictions that he doesn’t have space to address them all. This is a little more reasonable than the previous section, particularly when one takes into account redaction criticism. The main argument is that if you accept that the gospels do not necessarily contain verbatim testimonies then to say “Jesus said x” may still be an honest and reliable account of the message he conveyed.

Central to Blomberg’s argument is to compare the multiple accounts of Jesus’ life to multiple accounts of other historical events and persons. Where there are summaries or apparent omissions, Blomberg challenges the critical reader to consider whether the gospels are often judged more harshly than other historical works. In particular, he argues that we ought to try and view the gospels through the eyes of early historians, rather than apply 20th/21st century historical analysis to a context where it does not belong.

Moving on from the Synoptics, he goes on to look at the specific case of the gospel of John. This is by far the most slippery of the gospels, when it comes to historicity. It seems to me a fairly common consensus that John was the last of the gospels to be written, and is the most “theologically biased.” In this, my opinion has generally been that the author of John’s gospel has been more of a portrait painter, whereas the Synoptic authors were trying to be more like photographers. So John has more character fleshing out the work, at the expense of strict historicity. Blomberg’s analysis seems to try to reconcile this view with his hypothesis that the gospel is also historically accurate. In this, though, he seems to come rather unstuck. He resorts to rhetorical flourishes at the end of his sections which give a far more firm conclusion than his own analysis allows for, which rather frustrated me as a reader. He tries to wriggle through arguments, rather than accepting what seems, to me at least, to be a far more reasonable conclusion that the gospel of John actually has some inconsistencies with the Synoptics. This is probably best demonstrated by Blomberg’s own words:

“Is John unaware the Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth? In fact, John knows the birthplace, but apparently some in Jesus’ audience did not. Their ignorance is not surprising, since Jesus had grown up and lived in Galilee for all but the earliest years of his life. That John lets this mistaken impression stand without comment testifies only to his skilful use of irony.”

His last major study is to look at the historicity of Jesus outside of the gospels; in other words the potential corroborative or falsifying evidence. This is one of the more convincing chapters, though its main point seems to be correcting the hypothesis that Jesus never existed.

In the appendices, Blomberg really hits the nail on the head. His section on historical methods is, I think, bang on. Here, he discusses what should be the “status quo” of belief when looking at any historical source. Should it be disbelieved until otherwise shown to be true? Should it be believed until otherwise shown to be false? Or should the default position be somewhere between? For me, this should probably have formed part of the introduction to the book as this historical hermeneutic is vital to how one undertakes such a study.

In his conclusion, Blomberg does not conclude that the gospels are entirely historically accurate. The evidence is not strong enough. Instead, he concludes that they have “general reliability.” That is, though they may not pin down every point precisely, they are sound enough to be regarded as the most trustworthy accounts for the life of Jesus.

There is one key omission from his discussion, and one that has been on my mind quite a bit over the last 6 months or so, which is the historicity of the Nativity narratives. But with that and a few points already mentioned aside, this is a worthwhile book to read. I don’t think it’s a totally convincing case but it does deserve to be taken seriously, as indeed Blomberg takes seriously the views of serious critical scholars.

10 Reasons why I’d make a rubbish charismatic christian

I recently came across a few posts that were along the lines of “I’d make a rubbish [insert denomination/tradition/affiliation] christian” where the person identifies their own particular type of church. I’ve long thought that I don’t really belong in the kind of church that I do. I think part of it is that I would never want to attend a local church where I was totally comfortable; I like to be challenged and, in turn, to challenge others.

So this is my contribution/confession. I don’t identify my church, as I am not a spokesman for it, but it is sufficient to say that it is an independent charismatic Pentecostal church with no strong ties to any major national or international umbrella organisation. Just note, the only order here is the order I thought of them, and they are no way meant to represent any sort of scale of importance.

I’d make a rubbish charismatic because…

1. I’m not very charismatic. OK, I know that charismatic in the church sense is derived is ‘charismata’ meaning spiritual gifts (see point 6 below) but it is commonly taken in the English vernacular meaning of an outgoing, bubbly sort of person. I’m a quiet, withdrawn, dull sort of person.

2. I never finished The Purpose Driven Life. This seems to be one of the most widely read books in charismatic circles, but I couldn’t stand it. The introduction asks you to sign an agreement with the author, and asks that you only work through 1 tiny chapter each day. I don’t sign agreements readily and don’t’ restrict my reading. I could quite easily have finished the book in a week. But it was just so trite and patronising. And as for the theology, don’t get me started…

[Addendum: sine writing this, I did return to the book and have finished it. You may find a brief review here and a more detailed fisking of it here.]

3. I’m highly sceptical about the Toronto Blessing and Lakeland Revival. Much has been written and said on both of these events. My personal take (briefly) is that what may have started out as a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit was quickly overtaken by mass hysteria and hype. To the best of my knowledge, not one of the claimed healings at Lakeland was ever verified (please point me to the supporting evidence if I am wrong).

4. I don’t have the gift of tongues. This often seems to be over-emphasised in charismatic circles. I think it partly comes about as a result of a particular reading of 1 Corinthians 12:31 where Paul writes “strive for the greater gifts” and this is taken immediately to mean talking in foreign languages (or xenolalia). I’m not convinced it is (Paul, in the same book, writes that he would rather people prophesy than speak in foreign languages). I also find it quite demeaning when you hear the occasional preacher saying that if you don’t speak in tongues then you’re not a “true christian.” I find that really unhelpful and wonder how many people have left churches because of a similar rhetoric.

5. I don’t have a copy of the New Living Translation. This seems to be the most common version of the bible used in Charismatic churches, though it’s surprisingly hard to get hold of a copy in print. I had a discussion on what version of the bible I used recently.

6. I read the bible in Greek. This is not a boast. I can only read Greek due to the fact that I did a maths degree at university. We quickly ran out of symbols from the modern alphabets and by convention, Greek was the most common. I have had a go at reading Euclid in its original form, though that’s pretty touch going. I rely on Strong’s Greek dictionary in my concordance for the translations. If I am ever unsure about the particular phrasing I go back to the Greek to look it up. Most charismatics I know quote the bible as if it were written in English. Jesus did not say “I am the way the truth and the life,” because he didn’t speak English.

7. I’m not a young earth creationist. Though not a universal amongst charismatics, I think there is a broad leaning towards this view. I know there are some in my own church, and some that are not. For most, though, I don’t know what their view is. I’ve laid out mine here.

8. I don’t drink beer. What I find distinguishes charismatics from, say, baptists, is that fewer charismatics are tee-total. Meetings at the pub are fairly commonplace. However, I never acquired the taste for beer and the smell of it makes me nauseous.

9. I’m highly interested in Biblical origins. This is linked in with points 6 & 8 above. Most charismatics I have across don’t seem to consider the question too much and treat the bible as a neat package, delivered on their doorstep, with no questions about its origin being considered. I find it a fascinating field of study and makes me look at both biblical and non-biblical theological writings in a quite different way than I used to. I am writing a blog post on this subject at the moment, but have no idea when I shall finish.

10. I think that doubt is a valuable thing. I have often heard the notion “don’t think, just believe.” This is usually my prompt to walk out, as I think it’s an abandonment of rational thinking. When we’re called to “love God…with all our minds” I take that to mean we have to be intellectually honest, acknowledge uncertainty and be willing to admit we might be wrong. I subscribe to the view that doubt leads to enquiry which leads to improved knowledge & understanding. For an overview of my theological epistemology, see this.

Book Review: Did St Paul Get Jesus Right by David Wenham

This is actually the second time I’ve tried to write this, as I accidentally deleted the first one. Normally I don’t write reviews more than a couple of weeks after I finish a book, but this is an exception to that.

This was the first book I finished that I received for my birthday last month. The reason I was interested in this was to explore the idea of Pauline theology as it relates to christian theology as a whole. In many online discussions I have, there is often reference made to Paul in particular shaping the form of the early christian church. Though it may be difficult to do, because of prior knowledge of Paul, I think it would be nonetheless interesting to see what kind of belief might emerge if someone were given the Bible, but with all of Paul’s writings erased. Would the theology that emerged be radically different from the many ‘flavours’ of christianity that we already have?

It has to be noted that the book is very short, at just over 150 pages, and I got through it in a week, even though I was reading another book at the same time. The basic question is that of the title of the book. The author begins by making more of a populist case than a scholarly one, by citing Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as representing the viewpoint which Wenham sets out to oppose. Since these are both works of fiction, it seems a similar approach to opposing christianity by taking The Shack and Left Behind as your starting point. He does mention a couple of more serious writers in passing, though they are not mentioned again beyond the opening chapter.

Wenham starts his answer by looking at whether or not the documents we have are the most reliable sources for our information. In this, he stays close to the orthodox views of F.F. Bruce’s Are The New Testament Documents Reliable. This orthodox theme runs through the book; so although Wenham claims he’s trying to taking an impartial view, I couldn’t escape the idea that his conclusions had already been reached and that the substance of the chapters was his filling out the pages.

He goes on to look at various issues, which are all pertinent. These include Paul’s view on Jesus himself, ideas of apostleship, sex and the afterlife. One of the more interesting points is how little Paul directly refers to the teachings of Jesus. Though Wenham correctly points out that there may well have been a difference between Paul’s letters and his preaching, I don’t think the explanation that recalling Jesus’ teaching was restricted to Paul’s preaching which we don’t have preserved, though reasonable, is not entirely convincing.

What I felt was lacking was a rigorous engagement with the views that Wenham sets out to oppose. I wouldn’t quite say he was setting up a straw man; it was more a case of occasionally talking about a straw man that you couldn’t examine in detail. What Wenham does present is very good and deserves serious consideration; if a writer were to put forward a case proposing that Paul was primarily responsible for the foundation of christianity, they would have to engage with Wenham’s arguments and do a lot of work to cast doubt upon or refute them. Well worth a read, but it’s left me wanting to read some other follow-ups.

A lunchtime with Tom Wright

A few weeks ago, I caught wind that Tom Wright was in town. Regular readers will be aware that I have a lot of respect for him. I first came across him when he was made the bishop of Durham in 2003, where I was living at the time. There was a chap at my church who described his job as “reading books on behalf of the bishop.” For the last 20 years he’s been writing his “For everyone” series of the New Testament (NT). This is a series of easily accessible commentaries on each of the books of the New Testament, where Wright has provided his own translation of each book. He has now finished the series and this talk was to publicise his complete New Testament, “The New Testament for Everyone.” After the talk there was to be a Q&A session, before signing some books.

The talk was scheduled for lunchtime, though it was over a mile from my office, so I had to get my skates on a bit. It also happened to be a very hot day in late September, so by the time I got there my shirt was rather sticking to my back and all I could think about was grabbing a cool drink. All that was on offer though was wine, and this was the last thing I wanted on a hot day. As it turned out, I got there a little bit early, which was a slight relief, as I had envisioned bursting in late, sweaty and out of breath. As it was, I burst in early, sweaty and out of breath!

The location, the London Centre for Spirituality, is a slightly odd place. Situated just a few yards from The Bank of England, right in the heart of the City, you are greeted by a small bookshop as soon as you walk in. But at the back of the bookshop is a highly ornate Anglican/Catholic style church building, replete with stained glass windows. There were very few chairs out, maybe around 30-40. Most of those at the back were taken so I perched myself on the front row.

I was expecting to stand out as the only bloke there under 45, but I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a really healthy mix of ages there. They ranged from about 4 or 5 (a young girl brought by her mum) right up to a few who I’d estimate to be in their 80’s.

We got going a few minutes late with a brief introduction from the guy who seemed to be running the bookshop giving a very brief introduction. There then followed a second introduction from Simon Kingston, the head of SPCK Publishing. The thing most noticeable about all this was the odd behaviour of the bookshop owner who, when he wanted to clap, held his arms out at full length in front of him, elbows straight. The other thing to notice was Simon Kingston’s waistcoat, which was brilliant. I wish I had a photo of it, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

Anyway, the main topic was the translation of the NT and the “for everyone” series. Wright had been approached when he was the Dean of Lichfield to write a commentary on every book of the NT. The idea was that it was supposed to be for the person “in the back pew.” In his description of the background and target audience, Wright certainly betrayed his Anglican tendencies, given talk of “pews” and “laity.” In his estimation, only a minority of Christians ever read their bibles, finding an old dusty AV on the shelf to be an intimidating prospect. While this may be true of Anglicans, it is not something I’ve found to be in the case of the various Baptist/charismatic/Pentecostal churches I have been to over the last past 3 decades.

The intention was to make the NT accessible again. One of the things Wright drew on was one part of the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus talked about “giving us our daily bread,” as opposed to merely giving us some bread once and for all, allowing it to go stale. From this, Wright proposed that every generation ought to have its own translation of the bible.

He then talked a little about the difficulties of translation, where one can try and find a one-to-one mapping (i.e. word-for-word) translation such as the King James Version or something that is more phrase-for-phrase such as the New International Version. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Wright’s view is that you have to try your best to aid the modern reader in understanding the author’s meaning. So when a translation is phrased in archaic language that ultimately turns people off, then the message of the gospel is lost.

One little anecdote he threw in was about the first commentary which was on the gospel according to Mark. He was sat in a church next to someone who looked at him sideways and said, “Are you Tom Wright?” to which he replied, “Yes.” This chap then thanked Tom for Mark for Everyone, as it helped him get through his first year theology exams. Tom slightly despaired at this, as it was not intended as an in-depth theological book. Personally, I haven’t got any of the guides yet. My intention is to wait until they are released as a box set and then get the lot at once.

When we got to the Q&A section at the end, there was an interesting mix of questions, from the bland to the look-at-me-for-being-able-to-ask-a-clever-question. One of those on the bland end was something like, “which was the hardest book to translate?” The questioner may have been angling for a talk on the apocalyptic style of language found in Revelation, though a follow-up hinted that it may have been more aimed at ascertaining (or casting doubt upon) the authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy.

The answer that Tom gave was slightly surprising. In his opinion, the biggest difference between any two books in the Pauline corpus was between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. Wright’s hypothesis was that Paul may have suffered some kind of mental breakdown, taking the second half of the first chapter as his evidence towards this. He also said that Paul’s usual writing style was highly fractured, with a totally unorthodox grammar, like someone struggling in their search for an appropriate phraseology.

I managed to get my own question in. As you will have seen from my recent post, I have not yet tackled Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God (JVG), though I have done both The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)as well as The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). Together they form the first 3 volumes of Wright’s magnum opus, Christian Origins and the Question of God. Sharp-eyed readers will be aware that the correct order is NTPG then JVG then RSG. I am reading out of order, but I still wanted to know when his much-anticipated work on Pauline theology would be ready. The working title is Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). At the start of this year, the expected publication date was November 2011. This was then put back, according to ntwrightpage, to 2012.

Keen to find out when it would be, I simply asked Tom, “Now that the For Everyone project is finished, what’s next?” The first answer was that he wanted to improve his golf handicap, now that he can play at St Andrews. This has dropped him a peg in my estimation, as I am not a fan of golf or its adherents. He went on to list a few other books that were coming out shortly. Some were revisions/modifications of earlier works but the one that took my interest was Simply Jesus, a follow up to Simply Christian. Only then did he get on to talking about PFG. The latest expected publication date is now “sometime in 2013.”

Probably the question that elicited the most interesting answer was when someone asked how Wright ensured that his own prejudices would not creep into the translation. Aside from getting it checked by Greek scholars who he knew and trusted (as well their research students!) he described some of the more traditional differences. This was of particular interest, as the chap sat behind me was a minister at, apparently, the only German-speaking Roman Catholic church in London. I wouldn’t have expected Wright to be flavour of the month amongst Catholics, given some of his views, so having a catholic there seemed a little (and I stress little) like Fred Phelps going to Greenbelt. Wright recounted how he was, “the Anglican observer at [some meeting of Catholics] at the Vatican,” in 2008. His description made it sound like a Catholic version of an Anglican synod, though I am not particularly well versed in the intricacies of high church hierarchical bureaucracies.

At this meeting, some of the African catholic leaders were advocating a move away from the Latin Vulgate, which has been a sticking point for centuries. Tom just mused what might have happened if this smidgeon of open-mindedness had been present in 1525, which prompted a round of nervous laughter from those present.

Overall, it was well worth making the effort to go down. I got my copy of RSG signed and I did decide to buy a copy of the NT translation. I’m not sure if Tom was annoyed that the book I asked him to sign was one that I hadn’t just bought, but then again he may have been pleased to see it had very clearly been read.

If you’ve managed to read this far and still have no idea who I’m talking about, then please see below a video of him talking at a Veritas forum a few years ago. His topic is very much in line with his book, Surprised by Hope, which I have almost finished reading and I hope to post a review of it online next week. Some of his ideas (not least, those on “hell”) have been quite controversial. He touches on that here briefly, though whether or not you agree with him, I think the video demonstrates him to be very learned, erudite and in possession of a very English wit.

The Bible: what version do you use?

It always strikes me as a little odd when different people profess to “prefer” different translations of the Bible. I’m sure it has been going on for many years, though it is something I have only recently become more sensitive to. I completed most of this blog post prior to a posting from RevdLesley on a very similar theme. Some of that post has been assimilated into this (with permission) and you can read the original post here.

A phrase (or something like it) that epitomises the idea which makes me uneasy is when someone says “I really like the way this version phrases [this particular passage]…” When I hear that, I can’t help but think what they really mean is “I prefer this version because it best backs up my pre-existing view.”

I am not a biblical scholar, and have no adequate training to be able to determine what is a “good” translation. For the sake of honesty, I have included at the bottom of this post a list of the versions I use in my bible studies. My purpose is not to endorse any particular version, nor to condemn any. I will merely question some and, in particular, the cherry-picked use of them to justify a point.

There seems to be something inherently dodgy when someone picks a version to use, on the stated basis that it words a particular passage particularly well, when a different wording in a different version would make the basis for that assertion less certain. What it implies, to me, is that the conclusion has been reached in advance of reading the text and that the speaker is going in support of their opinion. I don’t like this approach, as it can lead to a skewed view of scripture. Instead, is it not better to examine one version first (I would say it doesn’t matter which) and stick with that as your first port of call? If you need to check the translation, you can use a Hebrew/Greek bible with a dictionary; you don’t even need to be an expert in ancient languages.

There are myriad issues that have to be dealt with in biblical translation, due to the greatly differing nature of the languages the books were written in, and those which we use today (in my case, English).While we have plenty of translations available, this allows us to get on with examining what the message meant to the original readers and what relevance it still has for us today. As my old headteacher always said: a text, taken out of context, is a pretext.

Although I think it is a bit of a shorthand, I often hear people use the phrase “Jesus said” and then quote an English translation. Maybe I’m being too pernickety, but it does annoy me a little, since Jesus didn’t speak English. So he never said “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In all likelihood, he spoke Aramaic, rather than Greek, so even what we have recorded in the bible is a translation; a point, I think, missed by many Christians. So he didn’t even say: “Houtos gar agapao ho theos tou kosmos ho stetou huios autou tou monogenes didomi hina pas ho pisteuo eisau tou me apollymi alla echo zoe aionios.”

I have long been a believer in the idea that the Bible should be accessible to all, written in a way easily understandable, but which retains as close a faithfulness as possible to what we understand to be the original texts. Of course, this entails a great balancing act, and is, I think, impossible to get right all of the time. Of those versions (I would reservations about calling them translations) that try to go down the more “vulgar” route, in the true sense of the word, the most notable examples are the Good News Bible and, more recently, The Message. I always used the Good News when I was growing up in the Baptist church my parents went to; and it was seen as a children’s Bible, replete with line drawings that will be familiar to most of those who have grown up in churches over the past 30 years or so. I’m not sure when the Message first came out, though it garnered a lot of popularity when I was my late teens, and it seemed to directed at that age group. Though I would regard them as excellent introductions, from which to get the ‘gist’ of a passage, I would be extremely cautious about using them for anything else, given that much of the fine detail has been lost, and is much more subject to the individual interpretation of the writers who, I am led to understand, were not scholars of the original languages.

This contrasts with the latest version to hit the book stores: Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone. Readers of this blog will be aware that I admire the work of Wright and have the highest regard for him as a scholar of the New Testament. For several years now, he has been writing a series of books entitled “[x] for everyone” where [x] is usually the title of a New Testament book. These are meant as accessible guides to each book of the Bible. In each of these, Tom has provided his own translation of the texts, and this new translation is a compilation of all of these excerpts. On the post from RevLesley linked to above, there is a quote from Tom on why he felt dissatisfied with the NIV, and seems, in part, to explain his motivation for doing his own translation of the New Testament. I’ve not decided whether to buy Tom’s new translation, though through talking to his publisher on twitter, I may be going to see him at a talk and book signing later this month, which could make for an interesting lunch break.

The versions I use:

I tend to start with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This is largely because I have been informed by a pastor at a previous church, who was a reader in New Testament theology, that its New Testament translation is very good. Sometimes, the overtly gender neutrality of it annoys me, as it seems to be a rather politically correct. One of the reasons that I like to use this is that it’s the only bible I have which has a column of cross-references. So when I peruse a passage, I will follow up all the cross references, in order to try and get as complete a picture as possible.

If I’m out and about, needing to travel light, I have a small New International Version (NIV). It fits into my back pocket, so is great for portability, and tends to be a favourite amongst many churches.

My first choice for an “alternative version” will be the Amplified Bible. I like the idea of including connotations to the text, given that the original Greek and Hebrew would have carried many more overtones than a simple word-for-word translation. Although it takes a while to read through any passage, and the layout of the text is not as “reader-friendly” as some others, I find it a useful follow-up resource.

When I want to really get to grips with a text, I have an Interlinear Bible. This contains the text in Hebrew and Greek (depending on Old/New Testament) with a near-literal word-for-word translation below the line. In the margins is the equivalent English translation with good grammar. That’s because the Hebrew and Greek word ordering doesn’t always make sense in English. This version also contains the Strong’s Numbers which I look up in a concordance, and gives a fuller translation of each word, as well as the correct pronunciation.

My current church is very keen on the New Living Translation. I have never been able to find a bookshop that has this in print, so the only access I have to this is via an application on my phone. I don’t know much about the background of it, so if any of you know more about this than I, then I am willing to be informed.