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Good Friday was a Friday

April 21, 2014

At  Christmastime you are liable to hear someone earnestly insisting Jesus was actually born during the Feast of Tabernacles and that the Bible tells us so. This is NOT true and the Bible tells us no such thing.

The Easter equivalent, it would seem, is the Crucifixion on either Wednesday or Thursday,  rather than the very, very, very, very, very well-established Friday.

I understand why. It centers on Matthew 12:40:

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Now, I see the point:  if you do the math “literally,” it doesn’t “work.” I know. I’ve tried. Three days, okay, counting “a part as the whole.” But it’s the THREE NIGHTS which is the sticking point. There is just no way to have three nights with a Friday crucifixion, and so people take what seems to be the logical step and conclude it must actually have happened a day or two earlier.

As logical and even NECESSARY as it may seem, it is untrue. The problem is, something is going on linguistically which is not evident in our English translation. Remember that what we are reading is a translation of a verse originally written in Greek, which in turn is a translation of a statement originally spoken in Aramaic.

But chances are proponents of the Wednesday or Thursday theories are proficient in neither ancient language, and yet are ready to pronounce their calculations right and the understanding of virtually all of the Christian world for nearly two millennia to be in error.  This Friday idea, is mere tradition, we are told, and the Scriptures trump tradition. They certainly do, but the Friday crucifixion is more than “tradition” and the impression Matt. 12:40 makes is almost certainly an error due to our own cultural and linguistic distance.

If we think of  “tradition” as a notion passed down generation to generation until nobody really knows how it started, this is NOT how we know Jesus was crucified on a Friday. It has abundant historical documentation, at least as much as anything we know about any event in ancient times.  By “historical documentation” I mean someone in a position to know wrote about it at a time relatively close to the events.

For example Ignatius of Antioch, who died sometime around AD 107, states CLEARLY that the three days covered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (Preparation, Sabbath, Lord’s Day). Reportedly he was a student of the apostle John–who was an eyewitness of the crucifixion, and we can guess it came up in the conversation. Most likely John’s students heard his account of that monumental day over and over and over again. Ignatius would be UNLIKELY to be mistaken on the day of the week when it occurred.  And as bishop of Antioch, he was a speaker both of Aramaic and of Greek. So I believe I can states unequivocally that he knows whereof he speaks when he states the crucifixion happened on Friday. But even more HE CITES MATTHEW 12:40 ITSELF TO SUPPORT IT.

He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and “sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet.” On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried.  During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathæa had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord’s day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoken by Himself, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord’s Day contains the resurrection. (Trallians IX)

Similarly, Irenaeus (died AD 202), who was a student of Polycarp (d. AD 155), who was a also student of the apostle John, even makes a point of it happening on a Friday as a parallel to the day of the week man was created (the sixth day of creation, i.e. the day before God rested, i.e Friday), which he takes to also be the day the Fall happened. You may or may not think he has  a valid point, but it does mean that Irenaeus held in no uncertain terms that Jesus was crucified on a Friday:

From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death, in obedience to His Father, upon that day on which Adam died while he disobeyed God. Now he died on the same day in which he ate. For God said, In that day on which you shall eat of it, you shall die by death. The Lord, therefore, recapitulating in Himself this day, underwent His sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created (Against Heresies V: 23:2)

Also Justin Martyr, writing about AD 155-157, expresses the days of the week in Roman terms:

But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (First Apology lxvii)

The purpose of this post is not to put forward a full-blown critique of the historically-novel non-Friday position, nor to establish a proof for Friday. I simply want to discuss what I think is going on linguistically in regard to details of the text.

So let’s look at the Wednesday and Thursday theories, which attempt to account for the “three nights” of Matt. 12:40:

Wednesday:  So the crucifixion lasts until the close of day on Wednesday. Wednesday night is the first night, and Thursday daytime is the first day. Thursday night through Friday daytime is a second night and a second day. Finally Friday night is the night THREE that we needed. And Saturday daytime is day three. Sunday would be a fourth day. But Jesus rose before dawn, and so he arose fully after three days and three nights, by this view.

Still, wouldn’t that make Saturday night a FOURTH night? Then Jesus was in the heart of the heart of the earth three days and FOUR nights…

In addition, as we will see below, according to Luke 24, the third day was SUNDAY, not Saturday, and He was resurrected early on that day.

Thursday:  So with Christ dying on Thursday afternoon, and was being buried, the remainder of Thursday is day one. Thursday night is night one. Friday then is a second day and Friday night a second night. Finally Saturday is a third day and a Saturday night that famous third night. Three days and three nights. And again Sunday would be the fourth day, but Jesus rises before dawn, and so it all works out. Right?

But IS Sunday the fourth day? No, it is the THIRD day:

“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 

And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.

 …Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (Luke 24:6-7, 19-23, 46).

Now let’s look at the linguistic details. First, while we have the phrase “three days and three nights” in ONE verse, the most common way the duration of Jesus’ burial is expressed is that Jesus would rise “on the third day.”

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)

Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. (Matthew 17:22-23)

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  (Luke 9:22)

And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise. (Luke 18:33)

…that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. (Luke 24:7)

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (Luke 24:46)

…but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear (Acts 10:40)

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Well, yes, but what does “on the third day” mean? Glad you ask. Here’s an example:

Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. (Luke 13:32)

As is well known, the culture of that time counted INCLUSIVELY. So then Friday being the day of the crucifixion is the first day, the next day, Saturday,  is the second, and the day following that, Sunday is the third. Friday, Saturday, Sunday works. Thursday doesn’t. Wednesday certainly doesn’t.

However, another way the time frame is expressed is with the phrase “after three days.” Now, this may seem LOGICALLY to indicate a different span of time from “on the third day.” I mean, is AFTER day X the same as ON day X? I wouldn’t think so, in my language, and my culture. If I say “Come after Monday,” don’t I want you to show up on Tuesday at the earliest? But if I say “Make sure and come on Monday,” isn’t Tuesday going to be too late? Yet, clearly, by the linguistic conventions in which the text was written both “on the third day” and “after three days” refer to the same duration of time.

Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” (Matthew 27:63)

[Note that this is immediately followed by:  Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last fraud will be worse than the first. (Matthew 27:64). I.e. “after three days” does NOT mean “on the fourth day.”

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise. (Mark 9:31)

And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. (Mark 10:34)

In the same way, despite what we MIGHT think, the phrase “three days and three nights” in Matt. 12:40 must designate the same duration as that signalled by “on the third day” and “after three days.” How can this be?

It is certainly because we are dealing with a linguistic convention which is not readily apparent to those of us reading in translation. In other words, we are encountering an idiom.

What is an idiom? It isn’t just “speaking loosely” or “imprecise language.” It is a fixed feature of the semantic structure of a language.

One “definition” of an idiom is 2+2=5. That is to say the meaning of an idiomatic phrase is greater than the sum or its parts. In other words, an idiom is a situation in which a language assigns meaning to a GROUP OF WORDS as a whole. And while each word has a conventional meaning, the idiomatic WHOLE is not derivable from combining the meanings of each of the individual words. And idiomatic phrase then means something DIFFERENT from what the various words which compose it might suggest.

In French, for example, if I want to say “everybody,” such as five people in a family, or all thirty people in a class, or the hundred or so customers of a given store on a given day, the phrase is “tout le monde.” Now this LITERALLY means “all the world.” Yet I can assure you no French speaker using or hearing this phrase is confused by it, or thinks that the entire population of the earth is meant. No one even thinks of that, because the meaning “everybody” it is completely second nature. It is an idiom.

An English speaker, perhaps, knowing only a very little French might protest, because to him it sure SEEMS like this HAS TO mean EVERYONE IN THE WORLD. Otherwise it is an error or a falsehood. Not at all. The speaker understands. The hearer understands. WITHIN the language community, the correct meaning has been communicated.

However, a hearer with little or no knowledge might misunderstand BY GIVING TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO THE INDIVIDUAL WORDS. And if a translator should render it “litterally” as “all the world,” that would be an INACCURATE translation, since it presented corresponding words but WRONG MEANING.

Worse yet, imagine someone who really knows no French somehow insisting on the meaning “all the world.” No one would do that, you say. I agree, and yet that is pretty much how we get Wednesday and Thursday crucifixionists.

So what is the idiom involved here? It is the phrase:  X days and X nights. We are more than a little familiar with it through the Noah story:

For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground. (Genesis 7:4)

Now, this phrase from this story is SO familiar, we don’t even think twice. However, in English we NEVER use this expression. The closest we come is a typical travel agent booking for say, “seven days and six nights.” We only specify NIGHTS because it involves a hotel stay, and the important charges are how many NIGHTS the room is used. So what is going on with the Hebrew/Aramaic idiom.

To understand this phrase we have to know what “day” means. If we ask a typical person in our culture how long a day is, we will generally get the response, “24 hours.”

However, Jesus said:  “Are there not twelve hours in the day?”  (John 11:9)

This is because the former refers to what we might call an astronomical day, that is one revolution of the earth on its axis, or in simpler terms, one light period and one dark period.

Jesus was referring to what we might call a meteorological day, that is ONLY the light phase.

Henceforth, when I want to distinguish the two meanings in this post, I will indicate the 24-hour period in all caps (DAY) and the daylight period in lowercase (day).

In modern day English, we use the word “day” in both ways, but I would suggest that the 24-hour sense (DAY)  tends to be our default meaning, and the daylight only usage (day) somewhat secondary.

It is generally asserted that the Hebrew and Aramaic word yom has meanings both DAY and day as well. However, I do not believe it is at all clear that it was. I do not see  that yom is clearly used for the sense DAY.  Iif it was, this meaning is decidedly the secondary one. From what I can see studying the way yom is used in the OT, it means the day–the “12 hours” period Jesus referred to–as opposed to the night. However since each day is separated by one night, counting a day implies taking note of the night that follows (and not that which PRECEDES, despite the popular notion). So in this sense at night it is still the same day as when the sun was up, because the NEXT day has not yet begun. Monday night is still Monday. Following the 15th day of the month, that night it is still the 15th until sunrise on the 16th.

But to indicate an DAY in Hebrew or Aramaic, you generally have to say day and night. In other words DAY=day+night (D=d+n).

Now the day was arguably the most important unit of time measurement in the Hebrew culture. But also the day and night distinction was very important, as it would be in any setting without artificial light. Duration and even distance could be expressed in days:

Please let us go a three days‘ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God  (Exodus 5:3 ESV)

Thus distance is expressed in terms of time at walking speed. But the time involved would be (approximately) 3 x 12 hours (and not 3 x 24 hours) since people would not have journeyed in the dark. So walking, like work (John 9:4) happens in the day but not at night. So to say “three days” does not indicate continuous activity.

On the other hand, some events, such as Noah’s flood, do continue on from day to night to day to night. In other words, it is a duration which continues for DAYS and not just days (with pauses for night). So when continuous duration is particularly being emphasized, the set expression “X days and X nights” is used:

Then I lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke him to anger. (Deuteronomy 9:18)

They found an Egyptian in the open country and brought him to David. And they gave him bread and he ate. They gave him water to drink, and they gave him a piece of a cake of figs and two clusters of raisins. And when he had eaten, his spirit revived, for he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. (1 Samuel 30:11-12)

And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:8)

And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:13)

And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matthew 4:2)

Now granted, we have only a relatively small number of instances of this formula Xd+Xn, but I propose the following “rules” which can be observed about its usage.

1. To express duration in terms of DAY, the expression indicates day+night. D=d+n.

2.  When modifying the nouns with a number, each noun must have a number. E.g. “Seven days and Seven nights.” Xd+Xn.

(NOT *”Seven days and nights”)

3. The coefficient of both d and n is ALWAYS IDENTICAL in all instances we have. Always Xd+Xn and never *Xd=Yn. That is we never see the expression with, for example, “seven days and six nights” or “six days and seven nights.”

4.  So if this is true BY CONVENTION both the numbers modifying “days” and “nights” reflect the total number of DAYS represented. Xd+Xn = X(d+n) = X*D.

5. This is the case even in instances where TECHNICALLY the number of nights and days are not actually equal. What is ultimately in view is total number of DAYS represented, including mere parts of days.

6. Therefore, when one hears or reads this expression, there is a kind of mental distributive property understood: 3d+3n = 3(d+n).

7. And given d+n=D, the expression allows for any time period including all or part of three DAYS.

If the above linguistic analysis is valid (and if you study Hebrew, you will see weirder things than this) then the Matthew 12:40 phrase “three days and three nights” is perfectly appropriate–in Aramaic–to refer to a period from Friday evening through Sunday morning.

 

Ten Ways Aronofsky’s Noah Could Have Been Worse

April 15, 2014

Recently, someone saw the movie Noah by Darren Aronofsky, and thereupon tweeted: “Not sure if I could have liked it less. “

“Oh, really?” I say, “Maybe it’s simply a lack of imagination. Here let me help…”

The following “pitches,” by the grace of Almighty God, never actually made it to the screen. Why they didn’t get green-lighted–in the existing film industry–who can say? We can only thank the Creator every day. (Actually, I made all these up, in case you failed to detect the element of irony here.) Enjoy (NOT!).

 

10. Disney does it again with Chosen. It’s the story of three brothers in search of three brides. They won’t settle for anything less than finding True Love—but then they have all the time in the world. That is, until Noah, their father, insists that a catastrophic flood is on the way—and soon. That explains the “Gopherwood Palace” dad’s been building on the back 40 as long as they can remember. So it’s high-gear high jinx, as Shem, Ham, and Japheth pull out all the stops to win the hearts of three beautiful princesses, before it’s too late. Only, do they tell them about all dad’s pets? You’ll love the musical numbers along the way, such as “Gotta be married before I’m 100,” “Gimme Cupid—not Cubits,” as well as an all-new version of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”

9. Kirk Cameron leads a cast of unknown amateurs in Waterproof. He plays Noah, the local lawman of Enochville, Georgia. He’s got his work cut out for him, what with the wickedness of man being great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually. But the job’s taking a toll on his marriage. What’s worse to pay the bills, his wife has had to take a job at the local animal shelter. But then Noah just had to have a new boat. And their three boys are growing fast. Shem’s the jock: quarterback of the football team, and on his biggest night, facing the giants of Nephilim High, Noah has to work late. Ham’s the “bad boy” type: his grades have been slipping, and they suspect he may have secretly started smoking. All he wanted was for his father to take him fishing, but there was never time: “the job comes first, son.” Japheth just lives in a world of his own, comic books and video games. But fateful events bring them all together, as 4,000,000,000 of their friends and neighbors are killed in one night in a freak thunderstorm. But the family survives and more importantly is able to spend quality time together on Noah’s boat. Afterward, Noah and his sons form a men’s group, and he invites them to take a knee and they all sign the Rainbow Covenant, promising to be better husbands and fathers. Tie in materials include a website and copies of The Rainbow Covenant, which can be bought in bulk for Sunday schools and home groups.

8. Based on the international bestseller, Genesis, comes Raindrops, a love story for the ages. Beulah knows is a forbidden love. She is a D.O.M., and Edwin is a S.O.G. Yes, he’s fallen, but so angelic. From that first day, when he walked into the classroom, her heart has never been the same. She and Shem have been sweethearts for three years, and she cares for him deeply, but Edwin sparkles in the sunlight. Which one will she choose? But choices have consequences, especially since Shem’s father, Mr. Noah, the leading climatologist, warns of a storm to end all storms, coming, who knows when. The Raindrops Saga is set to continue in Dark CloudOvercast, and finallyBreaking Storm.

7. Noah’s Ark (2014) is a reboot of the 1999 classic television miniseries of the same name. Kevin Sorbo stars as Noah, the ancient patriarch. Charlie Sheen plays Lot, the main villain. Macaulay Culkin is Absalom. Jane Seymour is Cleopatra, and Jon Voight (who played Noah in the original film) appears in a cameo as Abraham Lincoln. Action-packed, sometimes zany, occasionally irrelevant, this is not your father’s Bible film. And this is only the beginning: coming this September, the fun continues on NBC with Noah: the Legendary Journeys, in which Noah sets sail in his ark and each week encounters a different character from Bible stories, ancient history, and the mythologies of the world.

6. Coming this summer, Clash of the Nephilim, will be a sure-fire blockbuster. It’s a cosmic upstairs/downstairs. Above the firmament dome stands the dazzling palace of Paradise. Ian MacShane stars as Jehovah, who has just about had it with the denizens of the downstairs realm. Around him the celestial court is filled with intrigue, and some of the younger angels are sneaking away to hook up with babes down below. James Cromwell plays Che Rubin, and Julianne Moore is Sarah Phim. Little do they know on the flat world below, they are about to be blotted out by a flood of water from heaven. But one man gets wind of it, Noah, played by Jason Statham, and he’s determined to show the man upstairs who is boss. He undertakes a gargantuan building program, an ark half a mile long and twenty stories high. But before he can finish, Jehovah has had enough. “Release the Deluge!” he commands.

5. It’s Dr. Dolittle meets Captain Nemo in Dr. Noah, a complete re-imagining of the ancient Biblical tale. It’s a steampunk, psychedelic sci-fi voyage beyond imagination. Long, long ago lived an age-old wise man named Noah (Ian McKellan). In his laboratory at his fortress of Edenwood, his experiements delve into the secrets of the universe. He has learned to communicate with what mankind calls the beasts, but which are in reality far more civilized than they. Along with his companions, Shem the unicorn, Ham the lion, and Japheth the orangutan, he asks nothing more but to be left alone to do his work. Though the simple, stone-age humans are oblivious, the animals can sense something big is looming; a horrendous flood. Dr. Noah learns of this from them, and reveals his top secret supreme project hidden in a water-filled cave deep under his lair: a massive wooden submarine, known as The Ark, which is powered by the mysterious substance “Angel Fire.” He survives the flood and repopulates the earth with new, more advanced test-tube versions of the human race.

4. The Ark presents the most historically accurate depiction of what scholars believe to be the true story behind the traditional story we know as Noah’s Ark. Clive Owen stars as Upnapishtim, chieftan of a small band of early homo sapiens, in the Mesopotamian valley, who live in constant conflict with Neanderthals, who outnumber them. The humans have developed rudimentary agriculture and keep herds and flocks, whereas the Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, and these descend upon the humans raiding them of crops and livestock. Flooding is common in the valley, but when a storm of unusual proportion threatens, the people band together to build the largest barge ever built, large enough to house their small settlement along with their animals. The result is not only survival of the group, but deliverance from the harrying Neanderthals, who are unable to flee, and who perish in the flood. The human band celebrates their victory, sacrifice to their deities, and the tale of the event is told from generation to generation.

3. The story we know as Noah’s ark has appeared on screen before, but never before with the spiritual sensitivity ofThe Story of the Flood. Because Islam forbids depiction of any prophet, the story is seen through the eyes of the prophet of those days, whose name was Nuh. Accurately recounting the story from the original Qur’an. When God reveals He is sending a flood, Nuh builds a giant raft to save his family and all those who would believe his warning. Even one of his own sons does not believe, but the other three, along with 76 others, and Nuh’s domestic animals ride the ark to safety and give praise to God.

2. Finally, a Bible story for our times. Noah’s Rainbow is a very special re-telling of the ancient tale. He has begotten three sons with the wife of his youth, but he cannot deny the feelings inside. When God speaks to him, and warns him of a coming flood, he feels himself affirmed. But he struggles with the implications when God inexplicably issues his orders with heteronormative insensitivity. Animals two by two, one male, one female. How can God be good, and yet so clearly bigoted? He argues, he struggles, he organizes a march, but finally the rains come and he has no choice but to trust. His faith is rewarded after the flood, because it is a New World now, and God finally shows His true feelings by painting a beautiful rainbow across the sky. As the film concludes, even the animals join Noah and company in an exuberant production number to the song: “It’s Raining Men.”

[Note: that was revolting, wasn’t it!]

1. One final way Noah could have been worse. Imagine a scrupulously “correct” depiction of the details of the text of Genesis 6-9, unimpeachable to the last detail (at least according to someone’s interpretation), but which proved ultimately insipid, flat, devoid of narrative force. It could be due to unimaginative writing, inappropriate casting, mediocre acting, passionless direction, ho-hum cinematography, unmoving music, or any number of other failings which tend to kill a film. It could be acclaimed for its accuracy by some of the same folks who have vocally panned Aronofsky’s Noah for its distortions (of which there are many), and ultimately fail to draw anyone but the “usual suspects” who do that Christian movie thing. And ultimately, while it earns a place on church library shelves (whereNoah would not), there may not be all that much interest to watch it again.

We have no small number of examples of such works, and not only for Bible films, but also for literary works, where somehow, someone felt that fidelity to particulars was enough, and the impact of the whole was less a consideration, not important, or simply not achieved.

I don’t say this is inevitable. I say let’s have both. However, there seems to be a dynamic which increases blandness of result the more that strict adherence to source material is the focus. Part of this is due to the fact that adapting a written work—inspired or not—is an act of translation to a visual medium. As with other forms of translation, a paradox exists such that over-adherence to formal correspondence effects a distortion of its own. The original in its own context, genre, and medium carried impact, sustained coherence, and conveyed a message. Often the same bundle of particulars, in a new context, genre or medium fails to do so without significant—and creative—craftsmanship of the derived work.

As with other kinds of translation, the complaint is often traductor traditor—translator traitor! And certainly many feel “betrayed” by Aronofsky. And I don’t say he achieved anything like an appropriate translation, but many of thespecific accusations, I think, are exaggerated, groundless, or downright hypocritical. And anyway—it could’ve been awhole lot worse. QED

What Part of Noah Don’t You Understand?

April 12, 2014

I am beginning to get the impression that reaction to Darren Aronofky’s film Noah is proving to be something of a watershed among Christians. No pun intended (okay, maybe just a little).

 

As an example, I will begin by inviting the wrath of man, viz. to agree with Mark Driscoll. Dissing Driscoll has become something of a gleeful national pastime within much of the Evangelical blogosphere. Case in point, Michael Brown takes him to task in a Christian Post article in reaction to Driscoll’s own post there regarding Noah and Noah. In his conclusion, we see what Brown can do for us: give us a nifty Roman Catholique-esque view of soteriology:

 

God destroys the wicked and delivers the righteous, as numerous biblical texts declare, and we become righteous by faith, which is demonstrated in a godly life. (Emphasis mine)

 

This is as clear a statement of infused vs imputed righteousness as you can hope to find: God’s grace first transforms us into righteous beings, at which point God certifies us as righteous based on what he sees in us, and that is how we are saved. Now you may recall the Protestant Reformation (It was in all the papers) but Pope Leo could have gotten cozy with Brown’s summary here, whereas Driscoll seems more up on his Luther and Calvin. Still, if Brown is the guy I think he is (from occasionally catching his radio show) he is no friend to the Doctrines of Grace.

 

In a similar way, so much of what I read from Christians—Evangelicals particularly—in reaction to the Noah movie betrays a works-righteousness understanding. As one Facebook interlocutor tossed my way, don’t I realize that Genesis 6-9 is all about the gospel of Christ? Yeah, I do. Only thing is, that is the main “redeeming” point about Aronofsky’s film: how very, very much gospel there is in it.

 

So let’s get going on the film. First of all let me state unequivocally, this is NOT the film I would have made. YES, it presents a distorted version of the Noah account, with unfortunate interpolations. For my money, the depiction of the Watchers is the most glaring deviation. Next, I suppose, is the brouhaha over Mrs. Shem’s pregnancy. However, the vast majority of posts I’ve read badly misunderstand what is happening in this entire section of the film—in my opinion. My hope is at least that you will understand it better once you are done reading this piece. Likely you still won’t like it, but I’d appreciate you hearing me out on this.

 

Okay, so we are all agreed Aronofsky gets the Noah story wrong. And this is the pair of elephants in the living room, i.e. THE problem that sours so much of Christian reaction to the movie. Sure you’ll hear some remarks targeting the film’s productions values, which are what they are, but are pretty much par for the industry. Seriously, it’s not a badly made film. Let’s not get ridiculous on that score just ’cause you’re miffed at the rock monsters. Speaking of “score” though, I thought the closing song was pretty substandard. However, the lyrics do clue you in to the theme of the movie, in case you’d missed it, which judging from Christian critical comment, you did.

 

So how are we to react to this wrongness? Listen, I’m Mr. Pedantic in regard to this kind of detail. I react to it like fingernails on a chalkboard. That’s the bear I have to cross. Ever since 1966 I’ve loved me some John Huston as Noah—a much, much more straightforward depiction of the Deluge (The Bible: In the Beginning). But dangit! I still remember Noah shutting the door (Huston, we have a problem!). Hasn’t anyone read Gen. 7:16?

 

But I think Aronofsky’s fiddling is fairly compatible with Cecil B. DeMille’s in The Ten Commandments, and I for one have enjoyed the latter all my life despite its shortcomings. Ramesses II as the Pharoah of the Exodus? I think that’s centuries off, but so what? The four decades of wandering was not due to the golden calf, but shall we quibble? Anyway, I haven’t done so much, and I’m prepared to give Aronofsky (AKA, my neighbor) the same courtesy.

 

I need to to do, in order to avoid hypocrisy (at least in this instance) because vis-a-vis my brothers and sisters in Christ I constantly have to extend the same courtesy. How often do I have to endure factual, textual, historic, etc screw ups—from the pulpit—and not let it poison my reception of the whole? Pretty much constantly, my brethren and cistern.

 

As for the Noah story itself, I know a certain kiddies’ Sunday school area adorned with cutesy animals apparently out for a Three Hour Tour with Skipper Noah. Lord have mercy! That sort of bowdlerized Bible for babies is every bit as much a distortion of the story as anything Aronofsky has dared show on the silver screen. Quoth one Christian Facebook poster: “The movie was so dark…” Excuse me, have you actually read the book? Sexual deviancy, unhindered violence, near-total annihilation. Yeah, it’s dark enough for ya.

 

And then there are the popular memoids. Have you never heard it said that Noah spent 100 years building the ark? The Bible doesn’t say that. It’s a spurious calculation based on comparing Gen. 5:32 with Gen. 7:6. And I continue to hear people say it never rained prior to Noah’s flood. This comes from Gen. 2:5, which describes a condition before the creation of man—and before the herb of the field. That’s more than a millennium and a half before the flood. It had rained plenty by then—else how could man have eaten the herb of the field (Gen. 3:18).

 

I will spend eternity with fellow believers, even some with very conservative theology, who nevertheless hold that the flood described in Genesis was merely local, or at least not completely universal. Worse still, since they cannot quite grant a worldwide flood as historically or scientifically possible, they countenance monkey-business with the text of Scripture to support that notion. The fact is, however, not a syllable of the Bible suggests a local-only deluge, and boatloads of words and phrases and clauses and sentences and paragraphs which tell the story of water, water everywhere.

Aronofsky is reportedly an atheist—God grant that that would change so that he too would spend eternity with us. But I spent a couple of hours with him through his film, and I was glad at least to see he displayed what the text actually says, in a brief shot of the globe covered with hurricanes and cyclones.

 

In fact, he also gets a great deal right. Sure, he adds material not found in Genesis, but most of what is in the text, he puts into the movie—some way or another. Not my way, certainly, but he shows he has spent time poring over the text, the context, and has researched ancient commentary on the subject.

 

So all this to say, in regard to his inaccuracies, I just find fairness demands I consider it a wash. I get the same, or worse, from the rank and file of “my” people. So while I regret multiple interpretive decisions on Aronofsky’s part, I make the decision to suspend judgment (I think there’s something about that in the Bible) and render unto Darren what appreciation may be due unto Darren. And there’s plenty.

 

Besides all the above, I have to say that from the first moment I heard of this movie, my mind hearkened back to some forever-lost hours watching the 1999 TV movie Noah’s Ark (does not deserve a link) with Jon Voight. This pièce de garbage ranks so high on my personal detest-o-meter that I was instantly prepared to give Aronofsky gargantuan latitude with his version. So bottom line, he’s still got a long way to go to reach Voightian proportions of awfulness.

 

One other point to consider: sorry fellow Christians, but Noah doesn’t belong to US. No, and I don’t mean to the Jews either. Just who is Noah? A Bible character? Sure. No question. But before he was a “Bible character” he was a historical figure, and before that he was a living human being. In fact, he is the ancestor of every one of us. Even in the Bible he is in that pre-Abraham section of Genesis, which has not yet narrowed its focus to the chosen Nation. And Noah and the flood pop up in cultural memory all over the world.

 

Noah then, in many ways, belongs to everyone, even to an atheist such as Aronofsky, who likely considers him merely a legendary or mythical personage. But we ought to appreciate that Noah means something to Aronofsky. Let’s not give him the gratuitous insult (which I’ve heard some Christians say) that he’s just making use of the Bible story to make some bucks in a Hollywood blockbuster. Check out some of his interviews: he has been drawn to and fascinated by the person of Noah since childhood. I for one don’t mind hearing what he has to say, and he doesn’t have to say what I would say in order for me to listen.

 

Now let me get down to cases. First, the Watchers, i.e. the “rock monsters.” Oh, how I wish he had not included these characters! Some have said it gives a Peter Jackson treatment to the Noah story. Hey, didn’t even Bilbo get some “rock monsters” that also weren’t in the book? But I digress. What has to be granted is first, read the KJV: “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Gen. 6:4). Giants in the Bible, giants in the movie. Translate it “Nephilim” if you wish (as more recent version do), but this is mere transliteration. What the heck is a Nephil? The reference to the sons of God and daughters of men and the mighty men of old is so tantalizingly scanty, what do we make of them?

 

Interpreters are divided, but I can’t get past Jude 6-7, which is also not ultra-clear, but which would appear to inform us how to take Gen. 6:2-4. My personal take is that the text tells us of something like human-angel hybrids, whose existence corrupted the race. So these Nephilim are bad guys, to say the least. Yet here in the movie they side with Noah, whereas I think they are an integral part of the problem with depraved humanity.

 

Still, the text doesn’t exactly say that. The Lord’s beef (here) is stated to be with wicked men, not with angels, fallen though they be. And we are not told any more about the explicit role either the “sons of God” or the Nephilim play in the narrative. Reluctant as I am to say it, Aronofsky technically has leeway to employ these guys in his retelling. How they get transmogrified—petrified one might say—is beyond me, but at least he has them in there. How many treatments of Noah’s ark leave the Nephilim out completely, or (mis)interpret the SOG/DOM reference simply as Sethites/Cainites. Frankly, I think the movie does this too.

 

Anyway, Aronofsky also draws here from the Book of Enoch. Don’t be too alarmed; so does Jude (v. 14). Jude calls him “seventh from Adam” and the film uses language of this sort as well. Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) makes reference to his father. This is Enoch, who walked with God. Whether or not he actually wrote any part of the Book of Enoch, evidently there is at least one accurate quote from the book in Jude 14. And the Book of Enoch goes into much greater detail about the Watchers. This is a Biblical term by the way: Daniel 4:13, 17. Whatever the exact nature of these beings, Aronofsky is not making them up out of thin air.

 

Many people have taken exception to what they find as a kind of looney-lefty environmental-whacko message in the film. This is based on some of the ways Noah and family are portrayed as good guys and Tubal-Cain and his ilk are portrayed as bad guys. I do see what they are talking about, but frankly this criticism is exaggerated, and the best we can say is that the Body of Christ today at least seems to have a healthy patellar reflex.

 

The bad guys… ooh they live in cities, ooh they eat meat, ooh they mine and forge. Well, sorry, this comes from Moses. It’s right there in the text. Gen. 4:17, Cain founds the first city, named after his son Enoch (not the same one). The theme of the city as a locus of depravity is right there in Scripture all the way to Revelation 18 and the fall of Babylon.

 

And is meat murder…. very tasty murder? Listen, I am an avowed meatatarian. And personally, vegetarianism irritates me. But I live post Gen. 9. There in v. 2, God says he will put the fear of man in the animals, and in v. 3 he gives animals (i.e. meat) to mankind as food. You may or may not infer that before that time both situations were different: that animals lacked basic fear of humans and that men were not authorized to eat meat, but I cannot blame Aronofsky for understanding this. Noah, as a righteous man of that time, would not have eaten meat. And to do so would be wickedness.

 

At one point, Aronofsky’s Noah kills in defense of himself and his son, and also because wicked men have killed an animal. This is because by so doing, they have shed innocent blood. Genesis 9 goes not, not to allow capital punishment, but to require it:

 

But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed;for in the image of God has God made mankind. (vv. 4-6)

Before the flood, did innocent blood include animals? Again, you and I may not necessarily draw this conclusion, but I cannot blame Aronofsky for depicting the world of the time this way. And I certainly am not able to attribute this to “paganism” as some have done. He’s got Bible to back him up.

 

And what about mining and metalurgy? Well, in the first place, again we have Gen. 4:22, where this very same Tubal-Cain is the (original) forger of bronze and iron. But in the movie, even Noah uses metal instruments. And it isn’t about drawing natural resources from the earth, it’s about raping the earth. This has nothing to do with Gaia (as some have alleged) but with “the Creator” (as the film calls God). In the world the movie paints man has essentially denuded the ground of trees.

 

This is why it was filmed in Iceland. The gag is they’d tell the GI’s: “There’s a pretty girl behind every tree.” Only when they got to Reykjavik, they found out there were almost no trees. Trees are important in the Bible, to put it mildly.

 

Anyway, the film is not portraying Environmentalism, but Conservationism. And as the name implies, that’s a CONSERVATIVE value. The Sethites in this film are the Conservatives, if this reassures you. Some are bothered by Noah telling his son only to take what they need, even so much as a flower.

 

And oh, a flower appears to replace it. What does that mean?

 

A key, KEY theme of this film is God as Provider. For Noah, if we need it, God will provide it. If God doesn’t provide it, how much do we really need it? I think there’s Bible for this too:

 

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:28-33)

 

By contrast, Tubal-Cain’s motto is “Damned if I don’t take what I want.”

 

But Aronofsky’s Noah looks completely to God for every provision. The film makes this point over and over. This is particularly so in regard to the provision of wood for the ark. Noah is supposed to build an ark, but out of what? But the wood is provided miraculously (not by “magic” as some commentators—rather shamefully—have dubbed it.)

 

One other thing: God’s provision seems to work on a “just in time” basis. That rings true to me Biblically as well as experientially.

 

Some object to the way the film portrays God communicating to Noah. In Genesis 6-9 we are certainly given the propositional content of God’s instructions to Noah. Are we to understand from this that on a certain day Noah heard a voice speaking to him and it contained this sequence of sentences, whereby he knew the clear details of the Lord’s instructions to him? Why not? I’d certainly tend to see it this way. Still, I have to acknowledge what God himself tells us about the way He speaks:

 

Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. (Num. 12:6-8)

 

So we understand the usual way the Lord “speaks” to a prophet is in dreams and visions, in some kind of riddle. Of course He said this audibly to Moses, Aaron and Miriam from a pillar of fire. So both are Scriptural means for God to communicate.

So then, I have to conclude Aronofsky is within his rights—Scripturally—to portray God speaking to Noah in dreams and visions and riddles. The Noah account is very succinct, almost sketchy, and it is possible that the summary statement of what God tells Noah is not so simple as we suppose. Possible, not necessarily. But once again, Aronofsky has Bible to back him up. We can’t simply blame him for reading in some pagan mysticism.

 

This brings us to what is certainly the biggest stumbling block (apart from the rock monsters) in the film, and that is Noah declaring that he will kill his grandchild, if it is a girl.

 

First of all, do I think that is the way it all went down. No, not for a minute. But let me say this: the way you or I picture “how it happened,” beyond what the text says, is not particularly important. We have no basis for objection because Aronofsky imagines it differently that we do. I’d put good money down that if we had a time machine and could go back and actually watch the events of that year as they happened, we would be astonished to find many things we never, ever expected. No, I don’t think it would match Aronofsky’s story line. But I’m pretty sure whatever we might come up with would be just as wrong.

 

But let’s go over what this whole plot element is all about, because it is here that so very, very many comments from Christians get it so totally, absolutely wrong. This is not Noah being evil. This is not Noah going crazy. This is not Noah demonstrating hate.

The first thing we need to understand is that Aronofsky’s Noah loves the Creator and is WHOLLY dedicated to Him. He makes the point, clearly, and for the audience’s sake on one level and his family’s for another. God chose Noah, because he would obey faithfully down to the very last detail. He believes. He trusts. He obeys.

 

Noah is a prophet. But he knows in part and he prophesies in part (1 Cor. 13: 9). He knows this:

 

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7)

 

Aronofsky’s Noah also knows his job is to save “the innocent,” which means building the ark to house at least a sample of each species of animal for the duration of the flood, so that they may not be completely wiped out. Of course even in this scenario the vast majority of “the innocent” will perish. But the important thing, evidently, is the species.

 

The plan involves Noah and his family also surviving the flood on the ark. But is this in order for the human species to survive? That is the question, and in the film, Noah does not have a clear yes to this. But here’s the deal: whereas for each species of animal there is at least one male and one female, the humans consist of Noah and Mrs. Noah, three sons, and one girl—who is barren. God provides the wood for the ark, God provides the animals, but what God (apparently) does not provide are (fertile) wives for the three sons.

 

Remember, what Noah and family need God provides. What God does not provide, they simply don’t need. And right up to the moment the flood starts, God does not provide wives. And Ham’s speed dating does not constitute God’s provision, apparently. Conclusion: they don’t need wives. And why not? Because, Noah reasons, they are in a situation of planned obsolescence. It’s man who is the problem, and it’s man who’s condemned to extinction. Ultimately, even though Noah is as good as man gets, he is also is guilty, not innocent, and worthy of death. So are they all. In God’s justice.

 

So clearly they are just there to ensure the transition to the post-flood earth and see the animals safely there. After that, though they don’t die immediately, they will eventually die out and the human race with them. Unless Noah and his wife have more children—and he is not going to do this—no one else can reproduce. It’s an elegant solution, Noah figures.

 

This is not super clear to the family, who suppose some way or another their survival is the survival of the human race. But Noah understands the part where God says He intends to wipe out the whole human race. Look at the text. It’s true, it does not explicitly say God intends to preserve humanity through them. Understand, I do think it is so implicit in the covenant language of Gen. 6:18 that the real Noah never would have missed it. But this is Aronofsky’s story.

 

The plan is flawless, Noah thinks. But then… something throws a monkey wrench in the works. Grampa Methuselah has blessed the girl and healed her barrenness. No one knows this, but then she and Shem—uh—elope and the result is the “barren” woman is pregnant. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

 

Noah wants so very much to be faithful to his calling. And he is responsible for his family. They have caused the problem, there is one unauthorized person on the ark—the unborn child—and it’s up to him to fix it. So while the rest of them can simply wait for old age, and death—should this baby be a girl she cannot be allowed to live. Otherwise all those deaths will be for nothing.

 

Needless to say, this does not sit well with the fam, who go bonkers at Noah’s pronouncement. Some reviewers profess to find glee in Noah’s plan, other’s hatred for mankind. I don’t see that. He is completely tormented by what he believes he has to do. He hates it, and meanwhile, all his loved ones come to hate him.

 

I want to call this section of the film: So you want to be a prophet?

 

A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4)

 

And I kept thinking of these verses:

 

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

 

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37)

 

And more:

 

You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. (Luke 21:17)

 

Aronofsky’s Noah (misunderstanding the case) has to choose God over his own family. Some people have found a parallel with Abraham’s offering Isaac here, and that’s not really wrong. Abraham had every intention of killing his son. But this is actually more Noah’s Ishmael moment than his Isaac moment. He takes matters into his own hands in order to fix a problem for God. God never asked him to, but he rationalizes that he has to do it anyway.

 

All along, Aronofsky’s Noah insists it is a matter of justice. And in this he is right: it is only just for them all to perish, as Adam’s corrupt race, from the most righteous, Noah, to the most innocent, the baby about to be born. Here there is no dilution of the just wrath of God who hates sin.

 

We have to get this: they all deserve to die, even the baby. We have, in atheist Aronofsky, a clearer understanding of original sin and total depravity than much of the Body of Christ today. If we think this Noah is being cruel or unjust or insane, we are badly misunderstanding the film. Worse, we don’t understand the truth about God and His perfect holiness.

 

In the film, the only hope is that the child is a boy, because Noah is NOT going to relent. But then not only does the worst happen, but it’s twice as bad—not one but TWO girls.

 

Now you and I ought to understand something at this point. That’s called dramatic irony. Mrs. Noah gets it, but not Noah himself. The twins are the future Mrs. Ham and Mrs. Japheth. So God did provide after all, and that changes the whole calculation and jibes, after all, with 1 Pet. 3:20. Six plus two equals eight.

 

But Noah does not get it from this circumstance. He proceeds as planned—only he cannot bring himself to do it. In the end he does relent, and he believes he has failed. In the film this is the context for the drunkenness episode. He has failed God and has alienated his family in the attempt. He is completely alone.

 

But God has spoken to him, and he didn’t realize it. It was the moment he looked down at the twin babies, and as he later says “All I could see was love.”

 

As I understand it, the point is God opened the eyes of his heart to have more complete understanding of Him. Whereas Noah rightly saw the children (rightly) in terms of God’s justice, he now ALSO saw them, ALSO RIGHTLY in terms of the love of God.

 

Looking through his own eyes, he was also looking, as it were through God’s eyes.

 

And Noah found GRACE in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8).

 

This, in a nutshell is what the film is about. Grace. And grace is only grace when there is no compromise on justice.

 

Now the film tells you this, so you really can’t miss it, fellow disciple of Jesus Christ, that is, unless you are too embroiled in outrage. Well, the film uses the word mercy. And the (lackluster) closing song is about mercy.

 

And that’s why I don’t object too strenuously to this flawed film—in the end, I think it is no exaggeration to say that atheist Aronofsky preaches us gospel.

 

Do you not see that? A whole bunch of Bible-believing Christians don’t seem to have.

 

I’ve heard it said, in terms of one redeeming quality of the movie, that maybe at least some non-Christians will end up reading their Bibles.

 

Pardon me, but I have to turn that around. Maybe after all, some Christians will end up reading their Bibles.

 

Hooked on the Kingdom (part 1)

January 26, 2012

Never been happy with the customary handling of the Sermon on the Mount? Same here. Let’s take a fresh look at it then, starting with the Beatitides.

What we’ll discover, I think, is that in the Sermon Jesus is not laying down a new ethic. Though he is atop a mountain of sorts, He’s not Moses 2.0 laying down a new Law. Yes, He’s commenting on the Law of Moses. But He’s not beefing it up, raising its standards. He is speaking to Israel as Israel–Israel’s King–calling to memory and clarifying the way its always been, for Israel, under the Law. It defines them, as a people, as a nation, as those on a mission. They bear a responsibility before the world, corporately. And that responsiblity He is taking on, as Israel par excellence, their King. And for the world, as King of kings.

What He is about to tell them is good news. It will all take some sorting out, but they’ve all been sitting waiting for centuries, and things are moving now. It’s going to take some extraordinary shape, but it all fits with what the Law and the Prophets and the Writings have declared all along. The Messiah is here, and the people have reason to rejoice.

Who has reason to rejoice? He’s going to tell them who. That’s what the Beatitudes do, I think. We miss the point when we see in them a how-to, some variation on the Four Spiritual Laws. These blessed states, qualities that will be rewarded? No, that really doesn’t fit consistently. Burdens that will be compensated? Still not quite it, I think.

Let me suggest that the unifying theme of them all is for whom is the announcement good news? The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) are the “hook” of the Sermon, an introductory section which hints at the content to come and whets the appetite so that the hearers will listen attentively. Somewhere in it He mentions you, and you prick up your ears.

A word about “blessed,” the word they all have in common. You’ve heard it means “happy,” which is perfectly true. Understand though that it is the classic sense of happy, which is objective not subjective. We find the same thing in the Declaration of Independence: “pursuit of happiness.” It isn’t descibing how anyone actually feels, but what situation someone is in. We seldom use “happy” for this any more; we cover it with lucky, fortunate, to be envied, in a good situation. Those in such a condition, ought to be glad about it, true, but whether they are or not, life has handed them a pretty sweet deal, so to speak. The man with land and wealth and family and influence is “happy” in this sense, even if he’s an emotional wreck despite his “happiness.”

Poor (in spirit)

We have a problem right from the start, in my opinion. I really cannot fault the straightforward translation “poor in spirit,” because that’s the way the words read. But a cardinal rule in translation is to avoid renderings that produce either (1) wrong meaning, or (2) zero meaning. And zero meaning quickly gets filled in with wrong meaning. It just seems to me that “poor in spirit” approaches zero meaning in English. You’re frequently told the whole thing amounts to “humility,” by a kind of semantic snowball, where the words pick up additional content as they roll along: poor becomes needy, needy becomes “recognizes their neediness,” this becomes “recognizes their neediness for a savior.” Thus you have a good Calvinist, with a firm grasp on the T. Knowing his unworthiness is what makes him worthy. I think not.

So what is “poor in spirit”? Offhand, I’d say more English speakers, unfamiliar with the standard line, would assume it means “depressed.” In French people tend to think it means “feeble minded,” as I discovered when I inadvertantly insulted someone I was intending to help. As it happens I ran across an English usage yesterday in George Eliot, who can spin a mean phrase, let me tell you. I also found a second example, both from the earlier part of her novel Middlemarch.

Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself; and in the midst of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty. (Ch. XX)

Will wrote from Rome, and began by saying that his obligations to Mr. Casaubon were too deep for all thanks not to seem impertinent. It was plain that if he were not grateful, he must be the poorest-spirited rascal who had ever found a generous friend. (Ch. XXX)

For Eliot, a poor spirit seemed to mean a deficiency of character. This, of course does not tell us what Jesus meant, in Aramaic presumably, translated for us already into Greek.

One consideration we must not overlook is that in a similar message recorded in Luke, at a parallel point Jesus simply says “poor” without “in spirit.” (Luke 6:20) And he will contrast this with “rich” in v. 24. Can’t be completely a different idea from the Matthew version, can it?

Something I’d love to float (though I’ve never seen it suggested by anyone, and I understand that novelty is no recommendation for such things) is could we have misread “in spirit” as a modifier of “poor” when it is meant to modify blessed? So instead of “Blessed are (the poor in spirit),” we’d have “Blessed are the poor (in spirit).” I.e. “Blessed in spirit are the poor.” Well, I’m not much persuaded by this, but its something to mull over, perhaps, before we toss it out.

What I’ve suspected for a while is that Jesus is at once talking about poverty as in being poor not rich, but is considering it at a deeper level. Perhaps in Aramaic He simply used the word for “poor” and Matthew found its meaning so rich (if you’ll pardon the pun) that he had to render it with a fuller expression. This would explain how Luke parallels it simply with “poor.”

At any rate, it would seem to go back to back to the sense of “afflicted,” not just poor but crushed down, as we see so often in the Psalms:

Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;

let the poor and needy praise your name. (Psalm 74:21)

For I am poor and needy,

and my heart is stricken within me. (Psalm 109:22)

And in particular this one:

He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,

with the princes of his people. (Psalm 113:7-8)

Aha! Here we have something approaching our first beatitude. Good news for the pauper is that they will be made princes: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor, the needy, the afflicted, the downtrodden, the one of meanest estate has reason to rejoice that King Jesus is on the move. Glory for Him is salvation for us. Welcome to the royal family.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)

Mourn

Here we see a similar treatment to the first beatitude. How often have you heard this one transmogrified by stuffing it with extraneous information? Thus “mourn” is specified to “mourn over sin,” which we understand as repentence, something you need to get you saved, right?

Let’s keep Ockham happy, shall we, and stick with the simple idea of being lugubrious, doleful, sorrowful, for any of the manifold causes that life on this mortal coil hands us. Pain and suffering, loss and regret, bereavement and deprivation. Luke has his version: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:21). Sorry if this is not spiritual enough, but this blessedness is not a reward, it is a grace:

He will swallow up death forever;

and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,

and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8)

(Read Isaiah 25 in its entirety. See if you do not think it foreshadows Jesus’ Sermon.)

And of course we see the same promise later:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

(Revelation 21:4)

The grace we receive (and it is good news) is that we “shall be comforted.” We have a King who is here to work a plan to restore the cosmos to its rightful owner, see to it that the kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, but He is also our great High Priest who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Meek

Okay, this at least is a positive character quality, right? Meekness is even listed within the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:23 (where ESV, NIV, NLT et al. render it “gentleness.”) Yes, but it is still not quid pro quo, a reward for well doing. It is a grace.

This one has a clear OT antecedent:

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!

Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For the evildoers shall be cut off,

but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;

though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

But the meek shall inherit the land

and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Wait for the LORD and keep his way,

and he will exalt you to inherit the land;

you will look on when the wicked are cut off.(Psalm 37:8-11, 34)

This is good news for Israel, good news for us. In a world where the aggressive take all, the non-assertive get nothing. But in the Kingdom of Christ, we have the whole earth bequeathed to us. The promise to inherit the land becomes, as fulfilled in Christ, an inheritance of all the world.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:13)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16-17)

To be continued in part two.

And Now A Brief Time of Q&A

January 24, 2012

When I recommended in my earlier post A Very Good Place to Start, that you hold your questions for the moment, I did not say never ask questions. I only said the best place for us to start was by listening, absorbing, meditating, mulling on the text of Genesis one as God’s initial self-introduction. When we do, we find (I suggested) a series of self-revealing acts, none of which was done by necessity, and all of which were designed to communicate a fundamental and vital truth about the God with whom we have to do. Thus the acts themselves and what the text tells us about God and His first works convey a wealth of understanding that we will not grasp sufficiently, if we allow our heads to be distracted by matters we are curious about.

Now that you have mulled, and assuming you are sufficiently filled with awe, gratitude and allegiance, I now open the floor for questions. At least, I’ll attempt to field a few, in terms of how I would answer them. Beyond this, you’ll have to go over my head (which is not that high, believe me.) So, any questions?

Yes, this idea of light on day one but no sun until day four seems ridiculous to me.

I’m not sure that’s a question, but are you basically saying whenever you’ve seen the universe being created, it didn’t happen that way?

No, I mean, I don’t see how you can have days without the sun?

Okay, still not a question. But are you saying if you can’t quite see how it works, you are justified in doubting it happened that way?

No, no. Okay here’s the question. How could there have been days taking place before the sun was there to make it day?

I don’t know of course. I wasn’t there and the text doesn’t tell us. But we do see God’s Spirit deigning to be locally present to the earth: “hovering over the waters” and we learn that God robes Himself in light. Wouldn’t that do it? Not saying I know it worked this way, but wouldn’t that be one way it could have happened?

I guess. I just don’t see why.

So which came first, the light or the lamp? If we continue to mull over it as a self-revealing act, what could we say? That the source of life, truth, time and right is God Himself and not the universe?

What about prefiguring Christ, of whom John says: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (1) But then came John the Baptist, who came “to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (6-8)

And Jesus Himself said of him: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. (5:35-36)

I don’t know. That just sounds like the sun and light situation of Genesis one to me.

There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars” (1 Corinthians 15:41) But ultimate glory belongs to God.

Well, what about the suggestion that day one and day four are really talking about the same event?

Hmm. You mean a Kline thing, Framework? Well, we see correspondence of course, first three days, next three days. That much speaks for organization. Is that surprising? God presenting order and organization? No. Beyond this, is the correspondence so close that it really suggests identity rather than just similarity?

Let me ask you this. If I said last week I went to church on Sunday. And I also told you I went to church on Wednesday, would you think I was talking about one and the same visit to church? Or two?

Well, two, of course.

Why?

Because you said one was on Sunday and the other was on Wednesday.

Right. So why wouldn’t we understand the same thing when the text tells us God created light on Sunday and the sun and moon on Wednesday?

Um. Cause we call it Sun-day?

Riiight. Any more questions? You in the back.

Let’s talk about science. My problem is that if you interpret the text as you suggest, it conflicts with science.

Does it? Really? Do you mean by science the rigorous application of observation and reasoning which is geared to eliminate bias, control for variables, and lead us to the most probable conclusion? That science?

I guess so. Yeah. What you said. Science says it didn’t happen that way. I think we should consider other ways of reading the text so it doesn’t conflict with science.

I see. Well, let’s back up again and examine your assertion that the offered understanding, spoken into existence by God, spaced out over six days, is contradicted by science. How are we going to do this?

Given we are testing a certain scenario: call it six-day creation, what kind of observation situation are we going to set up in order to consider it scientifically?

Let’s say we take as a hypothesis the six-day understanding we’ve been mulling over from the other day. If indeed God did do it that way, what would we see now in terms of visible, observable, measurable phenomena?

I, uh, I don’t know. How do you expect me to answer that? We’ve only got a few details. You said yourself that 99.9999999999 % or more is not told us. How could we even begin to answer that question? We don’t know enough to say what to expect.

So what you’re saying is this approach is going to take us nowhere. That if it really did happen this way, we couldn’t begin to know what the universe ought to look like. And if we don’t know what the universe ought to look like, we cannot know that it doesn’t look like that. So strike one for science.

Yeah, but assuming a six-day creation is not science anyway.

So let’s take the opposite approach. Let’s take as our hypothesis that the purported six-day fiat creation did not happen. That’s an assumption scientists make, isn’t it? Uniformitarianism? Six day fiat creation is specifically excluded by the principle of uniformitarianism, right?

So if a chain of reasoning that begins by assuming six-day fiat creation didn’t occur also ends up concluding that six-day fiat creation didn’t occur… who’s surprised by this outcome?

Isn’t that a tad circular? Garbage in, garbage out. Science hasn’t demonstrated anything, because science with a built-in bias isn’t science.

In fact, if God’s act of creation is invisible or opaque to human observation, it’s going to be beyond science. And if you begin with a false premise, you’re likely to end up with a false conclusion. Aren’t we asking just a bit much of science?

Okay, but the universe is clearly billions of years old. Not six thousand years.

Excuse me. Where did you get the six-thousand figure. Was that somewhere in the previous post?

No, but everyone knows, a six-day creation means the universe is only six-thousand years old.

Everybody but me, I guess. Perhaps you’re thinking about the genealogies. They’re not in Genesis one, but we get some pretty soon. Sure, add those up and you’ll get something like six-thousand. A bit more if you take the LXX figures as more likely original. If you figure for occasional gaps in them, maybe its more like ten or twelve thousand. But that’s for the existance of mankind. You were talking about the universe.

Okay, then, six to twelve thousand years–and two days–if you say the stars were created on day four and man on day two. That’s two days, fourty-eight hours. The stars are much further away than that, much, much older. Obviously.

Aren’t you making a few unwarranted assumptions?

Such as?

Remember the 99.9999999999 % we don’t know? “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) You limit Him to some two-demensional, linear way of thinking. If He proceeded in one of the myriad ways He could have acted otherwise, your reasoning is pointless.

For example, what do we know about the relationship between time and space? You listen to Einstein. You listen to Hawking. And they can spin all kinds of nearly incomprehensible theories about the fabric of the universe. Curved space. Time relative to velocity.

So what if, say, as God stretched out, so to speak, the stars and galaxies away from the earth in space, He also did so backward in time? Just a wild speculation, of course. But if he designated their creation on day four of earth, but build into the fabric of space a vast span of time, well, wouldn’t that mean even if man were six to twelve thousand years old, the stars could be billions of years old, with no problem.

I guess so, if…

Gives new meaning to A Brief History of Time, doesn’t it. Not saying, you understand, that I have some way of knowing God did it that way, but it’s one possiblity. We’re not limited to your earlier assumption.

Hmm.

Or simply earth had one time frame during that week and the heavens another. Say for every day on earth, ten billion years passed out there. You’re average third grader has no problem with such a concept in the Narnia stories. And if C.S. Lewis could think of it, I’m pretty sure God could have.

Yeah, and next you’re going to give me that old “appearance of age” thing.

Could be. That’s a theoretical possiblity. Or even actual age. The universe was created in medias res, perhaps. Like at the opening of Lord of the Rings. There are thousands of years of history–the narrator tells us as much–though all this predates the beginning… of the movie.

Listen, we spent some time mulling over the six-day fiat understanding of the text. Something that anyone can derive from it with no difficulty. If it posed some problem, this basic reading, well, then perhaps we’d have reason to look for another one. But I suggest that if you read it, once you take it in for what it says, it is eminently satisfying. More than satisfying; it is profound. It is, to the Biblical theist, perfectly acceptable as is. One fails to see any real objection to it. It’s, at the very least, good enough.

If you’d spend as much time considering alternative interpretations of the physical cosmos–which is a much harder book to read–we don’t know the language–and it’s hardly begun to be translated–if you’d put a tenth of the energy into rethinking your view of the universe, you wouldn’t have to spend a second considering alternative interpretations of a single chapter, which is, after all, pretty easy to read.

Plenary Indulgence

January 23, 2012

You’re not going to like this post. That is, you may like this post, but if you do, you’re not the “you” I’m writing to. So back to the first “you.” I’m pretty sure what I say will irritate you, but my purpose is to give you something I hope you will appreciate.

And even worse, I’m going to presume to speak for “us,” not you-and-me us, but us as contrasted with you. Sorry. Not meaning to exclude you, but just to talk about a subject on which we seem to differ. I’m not alone in the point of view I’m going to address, though “we” are far from unified in general. I hope and think, though, that I capture enough of what I share with some of my fellow “us,” that this resonates at least a bit with them.

So here it goes, my conclusion after years of chatting with you:

While you fully believe in the God-Man who was crucified and rose again, you do not want to be obliged to believe in a talking snake.

I’m using the serpent as an example, of course. If this is not an issue, substitute the bête noire of your choice. I think you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Something you see many of your fellow Christians accepting “literally,” though you can’t bring yourself to–don’t really want to. And you dang sure don’t want to be told you “have to.”

You believe everything all Christians believe–must believe or not be Christians. But some things only “fundamentalists” believe, or the more fundy-sided evangelicals, anyway. The serpent, for example. You can’t, won’t, don’t. Not as a factual part of history.

Now for the good part, my gift to you: you don’t have to. You are under no obligation. You are free from any requirement to acknowlege any particular entity or event to be in the “actually happened” category. I mean, at least as far as we are concerned. Really, though, it doesn’t come from us–much less me personally–this liberty. You’ve always had it, and I hope you already knew that you had it. But I thought it important to give you this “license to (dis)believe” on behalf of “us,” because you kind of feel it is we who place the obligation on you. Well, no more. On behalf of us, I hereby absolve you from the aforementioned obligation.

Thing is I thought I needed to say it, because what seems to place the onus on you is the very fact that we believe the things we believe. Why it should be a problem for you, your brothers and sisters who “believe too much,” I don’t know. Best I can figure is that since we think that these are things “good Christians” believe, ipso facto you are not a “good Christian.” I agree you are well in the right to object to such a doom placed on you. I’m sure it has happened to you. That is why I want to disavow the verdict explicitly.

Who are [we] to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)

This goes both ways, of course. So at this point I’d like to lay a little of our point of view on you, and discuss a few of the measures you seem to have been led to take by this perceived obligation. By “measures” I mean ways of speaking and dealing with us and with the text of Scripture that are unnecessary, absent pressure from our quarter. And, frankly, I’d just as soon you wouldn’t. I think both you and I and we, all of us in fact, would be better off without, and so I guess my granted “indulgence” is not without self-interest.

For some reason, you seem to be intent on showing us we are wrong about believing the Bible to be right.

Now understand, I at least cannot claim to be a very exemplary disciple of Jesus Christ. I’ve got me plenty of days that would make Simon Peter’s night of shame seem worthy of a badge of honor. And my best days… well, best I not make any claim for myself. “Crappy disciple” would be putting on airs, okay.

But I consider, we consider, that being disciples of Jesus Christ entails, at the very least figuring that when He and I disagree–He’s right and I’m wrong. In other words, He, the Master, knows better than me, the lowly student. And He, my Teacher, has some recommended reading, the Bible, which as far as I can see He takes to be true in every way. My faith is in Him, of course. Belief in Christ is salvific, not belief in the Bible, as such. We understand that. But within that faith in Him is the conviction that He knows whereof He speaks. Our persuasion then is that, like Him, and for His sake, we approach the Bible with the assumption that it is true.

Yes, I did say “assumption.” I’m sure some of us will want to use a stronger word. And I’d be happy also to use a stronger word: conviction, persuasion, confidence, faith. Fine. But for now I will work with “assumption.” By that I mean any time I encounter something affirmed as true in the Bible that is different from what I otherwise think is true, my “assumption” is the Bible is right and I am wrong. The reasonable course of action then is to correct my thinking. Can I turn my belief system on a dime, at will, on a simple reading of a Scriptural proposition. No, of course not. At least at first I’m sure I hold to contradictory opinions at different levels. Somehow I believe X down inside, simultaneously believing God contradicts X and is right to do so. Thank God His Holy Spirit comes to sort out my inward mess, by His grace.

So when the Scriptures present me as factual and historic–as I think they do–an episode in which a serpent communicates verbally with a woman, I am persuaded that my appropriate response as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to affirm it along with the Bible. Sure, I’d recommend this to you, too. But nothing I think or say obliges you. Believe me, I’m well aware you may be a zillion times the disciple I am and not see eye-to-eye with me on these things. Your best Braveheart now, on three: “FREEDOM.”

Now for the “measures.” First, I’d like to talk about the concept “true” and what you choose to do with it versus what I’d like to do with it. I’ve said above, we see the Scriptures as “true” in every way. It’d be fine with me to just leave it like that, but you, or some of you, come along with something like: me too, completely true, and by true I mean not necessarily factual or historic, here and there. Forgive me if I say that is playing a little fast and loose with “true.” I mean, go out an do a survey of actual usage among English-speakers. I’d predict that by and large, the way we use it generally includes both “factual” and “historic.”

But I suppose there’s enough leeway in usage so that you can legitimately use it to mean the non-factual kind of “true,” if you so desire. Fine. It’s just that now we have to find another way of expressing what we mean by true-including-factual as opposed to true-but-not-factual. So we use “inerrant.” Yes, there’re some drawbacks with this word. It’s kind of technical, needs a whole “statement” to specify what we mean and don’t mean. It tends to emphasize the “factual” part of true, though we know as well as you do that “true” means more than “factual.” We just don’t think it means “less.”

Understand too, we know perfectly well that there are sections of Scripture that are deliberately fictional narratives, parables for example. Obviously, those should not be taken as “factual” or “historic,” since the Scripture does not claim that they were. Now it’s entirely possible some of what we take as historic or factual really should be placed in the same category as parables and such. The original readers would have spotted them as such, but we’ve missed it, taken them wrong. Okay, let’s agree that’s possible. So what’s the best course of action? Understand, if we knew X text was not intended to be factual (a parable or metaphor or such) we’d be happy to take it as intended. No problem.

But this can happen the other way around too. One could take a text as non-factual that was intended by author as “true” in the sense that includes “factual.” Now this may not be the end of the world, but it is not desirable, as a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ.

That’s one reason I think it is important to hold the persuasion I mention above, that the appropriate stance for a disciple of Jesus Christ to be ready to accept correction from the Scriptures. It would be far too easy otherwise to categorize a given text as “not-intended-to-be-factual” for my own convenience. In other words, I’m comfortable making that decision about the text, if something in the text tells me to, but not if it simply gets me out of “having to” believe something I’d rather not have to.

Is that what I think you’re doing? Well, I don’t know about you personally, but I sure think I see a lot of people taking that kind of route. And if you should decide to, remember, that’s your business, not mine. I mean, I’m happy to talk with you about it, show you why I take a different position on it, but you don’t “have to” for my sake.

However, some of you go to a great deal of trouble indeed to demonstrate that a certain passage is this kind of text and not that kind. Some of the techniques employed are a little far fetched. Some are considerably more than far-fetched. What can we say about this? That’s what makes horse races, right. Only thing is, sometimes your verbage gives you away. It’s this “have to” kind of phrase. This doesn’t “have to” mean X. Frankly, it’s a red flag that someone is avoiding one of those “rather not believe” situations. So I can’t read your mind, certainly, but if you find yourself taking one of these “I don’t hafta and I ain’t gonna” positions, I’d try my hardest to examine my own motivations if I were you. Of course, I’m not you, and I don’t know how successful I’d really be if I did try it. Do what you think best, of course.

Some of you don’t particularly like our word “inerrant.” Well, first of all, we wouldn’t need it if it weren’t for… well, you… LOL. Sorry. But a lot of you object to the word because you think it is not true (ironic, isn’t it?). You seem to have some vague notion that there are plenty of places where the Scriptures deviate from factuality or historicity (I mean unintentionally). Ergo it has errors and therefore is not “inerrant.” Now, these are harder to come up with than one might initially suppose. Very frequently it is plain to see that not a lot of thought has gone into some of the examples cited. I’m actually not aware of too many instances that are not pretty easily dismissed.

But here’s the problem: if Scripture contained an error, how would you know? Again, if I approach it as assuming it it right and I am wrong in case of uncertainty, when am I going to correct the Bible? Okay, I’m afraid that if the Bible makes an error, I’m going to make an error right along with it, this way. I don’t know what other choice I have, frankly. The servant is not greater than his Master. And the Bible isn’t my Master, Jesus is, but again, it’s His book, His recommended reading. So, yes, my pre-committment to Him, and secondarily to His book, is going to mean I take it as “true” as an a priori. Therefore, you’re probably spinning you’re wheels to try and get us to buy a particular “error.” The vast majority of them aren’t, and should you manage to find a “true error” (LOL), we’re going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

Another thing we hear from you is “it doesn’t matter.” That is that we’re barking up the wrong tree even to think in terms of the “factual” and “historical” part of “true,” since what really matters is the “teaching” or “theology” part of “true.” You’ll excuse us, I hope, for not finding this a very fruitful direction to take. I’m not ready–not smart, wise, insightful enough–to know when the “fact” part is unimportant. Our faith is firmly rooted in the “actually happened.” And at some point it was important enough for a writer to record the events, and if he (she?) intend to communicate, along with it’s theological meaning, that it also happened to actually happen, well, we’re going to assume the author is right–whatever we might otherwise suppose.

But again, that’s just us. Don’t feel constrained to do likewise, simply because we are so persuaded. We do think its better over here, but we’re not you.

So what is my bottom line? I just suggest, that if there is a part of the Scripture you don’t believe, don’t wish to believe, don’t want to “have to” believe–then don’t. I hope you will feel this freedom, rather than try to build a mechanism that allows the text of Scripture to happen to agree with what you already believe. I just think that is a suspect procedure. Sorry. I’m not totally sure how you’ll know when you’re doing it. I guess you could ask me, and I’ll tell you. LOL. Just kidding. (Or not.)

When you hear yourself say things like “I’m willing to accept X or Y or Z interpretations” but the one you are not really that “willing to accept” is the one “we” do, you might take this as a clue. When you hear yourself saying this doesn’t “have to” mean that, you might find you’re up to something.

Listen, from our point of view no text “has to” mean something, it just does. And I think if you felt free to disbelieve whenever, wherever, you might see it that way too. Many of these situations are pretty obvious, without the “have to” business clouding them up. We know you’re clever enough to find a way around the cloud. That’s not in question. When we don’t buy the “clever” though, many on your side concludes it’s due to lack of brain power on this side. That’s a bit sad when it happens, and it does happen quite a bit.

Well, I’ve said enough, I think. Probably more than enough. I do wish you the enjoyment of your freedom, though I still suspect I was right about your not liking this post. Oh, well, you can’t please everyone.

A Grain of Truth

January 20, 2012

Just a quick word about that good old mustard seed thing, since it came up in a forum thread somewhere. I thought I’d post it here rather than bury it in that thread. It’s ridiculously simple, but still it continues to live on… the idea that Jesus made an error of fact by stating the mustard seed was the smallest plant seed in existence. He didn’t, as I think I can demonstrate.

The parable occurs in all three synoptics: Matthew 13:31-33; Mark 4:30-32; and Luke 13:18-19.

Luke doesn’t include the “smallest” reference. So we’ll concentrate on Matthew and Mark.

It really should be enough to point out that he is telling a parable, but there is more we can say.

I’m going to cite from the ESV. In this case, to show, sadly, that the translation does us no favors, and I think obscures the meaning.

Matthew 13:31-32

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

The Greek behind “It is the smallest of all seeds” reads:

μικρότερον μέν ἐστιν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων

ho mikroteron men estin panton ton spermaton

which smaller -0- is of-all the seeds

(A few technicalities: here is a comparative form functioning as superlative, apparently. Also note an etymological connection between “sowed” (espeiren < speiro) and “seed” (spermaton < sperma), etymologically sper-ma, “a sowed thing.” This probably indicates that “seed” is not exactly equal to sperma, and Jesus is specifically referring to the class of seeds sown by farmers.)

The principal thing I wish you to note is the presence of the article, Lit. “all the seeds.” Now, “all seeds” could be a reasonable way to translate this. But so could “all the seeds.”

Listen to the difference this would seem to make in English at least:

a. It is smaller than all seeds.

b. It is smaller than all the seeds.

If you think reading a makes it sound like a universal statement, while reading b indicates merely all the seeds in a particular class–for example, all the seeds the farmer has to sow–I think you are understanding this correctly. It seems to me that is all the language of the parable is doing, out of all the man’s seeds the mustard grains are the smallest. By contrast it grows larger than any other plant in his garden. (Not any plant in any garden on earth.) This is all just talking about a particular garden. It’s not really that complicated either.

Fine, you say, but look at Mark. You can’t get out of that one so easily. Well, I’m not trying to get out of anything, of course, just showing you what is actually going on. But I do admit, the ESV rendering of Mark 4:30-32 appears to give us a worse case:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Aha! “All the seeds on earth.” If that’s not universal. I don’t know what is. Right?

Note first of all, this time the ESV translators gave us the definite article “the.” Following their lead from Matthew, I suppose they could have said “the smallest of all seeds on earth.” I’m not sure it makes a big difference here, in view of “on earth,” but it does make me wonder why the article doesn’t appear in the Matthew version.

But I invite you to make a little observation about the text. More Greek, sorry.

First let’s look at the phrase “when sown on the ground.”

ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

hotan spare epi tes ges

when sown on the earth

Note the use of ge “earth” in the sense of “ground.” (Daniel will like that.) Obviously, Jesus means the man sows the seed where seed goes when it gets sown, onto the soil, on the ground.

Now let’s look at the phrase rendered “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.”

μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

mikroteron hon panton ton spermaton ton epi tes ges

smaller being of-all the seeds the on the earth

You, being astute and observant, will want to say: “Wait, there’s epi tes ges again. The exact same words. Didn’t they mean, two nano-seconds ago, “on the ground”? Why are they now supposed to mean “on earth”?

I think that’s a very good question. Can two similar forms have disparate meanings in close proximity? Sure. But is the local context a reasonable guide for which way to take the intended sense. Uh, yeeee-ah.

Someone please tell me why it is more likely that Jesus here means “on the earth” (a universal statement) than simply “on the ground” where the seeds go to grow into a plant. Can’t think of a reason? Me neither.

So for the life of me, I cannot understand why the ESV translators took it the way they did.

Now, if we adapt our ESV reading, let’s see if this changes our perception:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the ground, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Poof, the “problem” disappears.

Understand, I’m not presenting this because I think it “solves the problem,” but because I think it shows more accurately what’s actually going on in the text. There is no “problem” and there never was.

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