We are all aware of the language barrier inherent in discussing both the Tanakh (Hebrew) and the New Testament (Koine Greek.) While we have lexicons and dictionaries, and other contemporary works—what we don’t have is a 8th Century BCE Israelite or a 1st Century CE Judean to explain the individual words themselves within their culture. We can do an antiseptic translation, stating “yowm” means “day” or “division of time” or “period” yet the argument will rage as to whether the “yowm” of Genesis 1 are 24-hour periods, or eons of time.
Or the word ”theopneuostos” of 2 Tim. 3:16. We can see the word is a combination of “God” (theo) and “wind” or “breath” (pneuostos) but since it is not utilized in other literature, not even anywhere else in the Bible, we can only surmise as to the author’s intention of this unique, made-up word. It has been translated as “inspired by God” or “God-breathed;” the exact nuance is ultimately unknown. And yet this is a foundational claim of someone who holds to the divine nature of the Bible!
This point was forcefully made to me in my first semester of Spanish class. If you have ever taken a language class—they make you pick a Spanish name, hopefully one close to your own. For those of us who haven’t a close name to translate—we were able to pick our own. Being me, I choose “Burrito” to be funny. All semester I was called “Burrito” by my fellow classmates and the professor (who had a sense of humor, luckily.)
We learned in Spanish, you add an “-ito” to a word to make it cutesy, or childish. Similar to the English equivalent of adding “-y” to words such as “doll” to become “dolly” or “horse” to become “horsey.” “Muchacho” (young boy) would become “muchachito.” The professor turned to me and dead-panned, “And since Burro means ‘Ass’ then Burrito would mean Little…” The students laughed, getting the joke.
In order to appreciate what he was saying, one would have to understand the implementation of “-ito” in the Spanish language, what a “Burrito” normally is, and that “Ass” can mean a four-legged pack animal…or something else.
While we can sterilely translate the words, can we translate the meaning behind the words? How many times have we typed some comment on-line, and someone else takes it completely unlike we anticipated? How many times have we bemoaned that sarcasm and wryness do not translate well in the written word? The Bible was not written with smilies to provide further information. A “;-)” behind a Proverb to clue us in to whimsy involved.
Take Mark 15:39 where the centurion watches Jesus die, and says, ”Truly this man was the son of God.” Many people interpret this to be a straightforward confession of Jesus’ reality. But is that the author’s intent? What if the author wrote it mockingly? As if the centurion, seeing Jesus humiliated and killed, said, “Oh sure. This was the son of God. And I am the King of Spain. Ha ha ha ha.” (Note the priests were just calling Jesus “Christ, the King of Israel in verse 32, yet we do not consider those words a confession of faith.)
We simply don’t know. We can speculate. We can view the context and hypothesize. But in the end, it is a matter of weighing alternative speculations, in which we can only hope one theory is more persuasive than another.
Worse, the Bible was written to a culture and society we know very little about—and what we do paints a picture very unlike our own. Take Marriage. In the Tanakh, polygamy is treated cavalierly. The greatest limitation is that Kings should not have too many wives. Deut. 17:17. The stories of romance are noted for their being an exception. Wives and marriage were a means to an end, and love was not considered a necessary part of that means.
By First Century Judea, marriage was a means to gain honor or join houses in the society. “Love” had nothing to do with it—it was an arrangement made by the families for the parents’ mutual benefit. The wife was always considered a bit of an outsider; never quite part of the new family. She was expected to obtain her emotional support and relationships through other female friends and her children—not her husband!
In our culture, we look at marriage as the instituting of a new home. At that time, it was looked at as assimilating the female into the male’s family. There was no “new home” but a continuation of the old.
We occasionally hear, at weddings and such, how a couple will become “one flesh” and this means a joining of heart, spirit, mind, personhood, blah, blah, blah. Poppycock. “One flesh” to the authors who utilized the term considered it to mean sex. 1 Cor. 6:16. Oh, you can glamorize it, and extrapolate meaning out of it—but that isn’t what the authors intended when they wrote it.
Which causes me to wonder—given the language barrier, the translation difficulties, our lack of knowledge and the social differences—does the Bible apply today? How much are Christians taking a 2000+ year old book and trying to shoehorn it into a prescription for today? And how well does it fit?
We recently had a discussion regarding Jesus’ words of not worrying about what a person would eat or drink, or be clothed in. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Matt. 6:25-34. To the audience of Matthew’s time, their sole concern as peasants would have been basic survival. They were no thoughts of slowly accumulating a fortune. There were thoughts of obtaining enough food to survive another year.
How applicable is that today? Most of us have closets of clothes. Pantries of food. Refrigerators and second freezers bulging with enough food to last for weeks. Are we worried about tomorrow’s food? Nope—we are worried about our son’s college fund. Our retirement package. Does Matt 6 still apply in the age of bank accounts and IRA’s?
Is 1 Tim. 2:9 still good law? Are Christians claiming women should not wear gold and pearls? Or is that 2000 years behind the times? Full and fair warning: If one provides some crack about not taking 1 Tim. 2:9 literally, and we should look at the principle of the thing, I will question why Rom. 1:26-27 should not likewise be taken “in principle” rather than literal.
When is the last time any of us went to the butcher to get some meat sacrificed to idols? 1 Cor. 8:4. Or worried about women having their head covered when they pray? 1 Cor. 11:5. Who goes to church to be cured of an illness? James 5:14
Not long ago, in many conservative circles drinking alcohol was a sin. In the Bible Belt of America, there are “dry” counties—no sale of alcohol, which is still reminiscent of the general feeling of prohibition. Yet in the society of the New Testament, alcohol was a common drink. Most Jews drank about 1 liter a day. Is the Bible out-dated?
Slavery existed both in Canaan and First Century Judea. The Bible tacitly endorses slavery by providing instructions both for the masters of slaves and slaves themselves. Eph. 6:5-9. 1 Peter 2:18-20. Should the Biblical principle of slavery be re-introduced? Or have we grown wiser than the Bible?
And what I see is instead of following the precepts laid out; Christians allegorize what is contained therein to some modern application. Slavery? Oh, no—we will give a sermon on employers/employees using these passages. Meat for idols? Oh, no—we will give a talk on how one can’t listen to Christian rock-n-roll ‘cause it will lead others to listen to actual rock-n-roll (Which leads to dancing and orgasmic sex. All bad.)
Women can wear gold and pearls—that’s just fine! The principle of the thing is that they need to be “modest” about it.
They are already doing it! They already understand what was fine and good 2000 years ago just doesn’t fly today. “Sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21-22) 2000 years over its expiration date; doesn’t apply today! “Give to anyone who asks” (Luke 6:30) Well! This is the 21st Century—they didn’t have homeless people crowding the streets like we do today. That verse doesn’t apply, either!
Even Christians are proclaiming what the Bible actually says is not what it actually means in our day and age. ‘Cause things are different. At what point do we realize applying a book compiled of other books written from 800 BCE to 130 CE in 2007 CE is not going to work?