Friday, August 20, 2010

Gentiles for Moses

Last week I reviewed Michael Bird’s new book Crossing over Land and Sea (Hendrickson, 2010). This week he has posted an essay over on Bible and Interpretation. Bird gives a brief overview of the question: Was ancient Judaism a missionary religion? He then examines evidence from Matthew 23:15 and Josephus’s Antiquities 20.17-53. Bird demonstrates that is difficult to categorize all of ancient Judaism as “missionary” or “non-missionary.” Second Temple Judaism did attract proselytes and facilitate the conversion of Gentiles, but was not self-consciously “missionary” in nature.

If you have not yet read Michael’s book and are interested in learning more about the topic you can read his essay here.

Gender Inclusiveness in Bible Translations - Can we go too far?

Anyone who has learned a language other than English knows that the act of translating from one language into another is not like connecting dots or trying to break a code on the back of a cereal box. Often there is not a one for one correspondence between words. One may talk about how foreign words are similar, but they are rarely exactly the same. Geography, culture, even nationality can all play a part in the process of how we translate a word. This happens even in English. There are a number of English words that mean one thing in the USA and something else in the UK. For instance, in the USA suspenders are what a man wears to hold up his trousers, but in the UK they are what a woman uses to hold up her stockings. In the USA the backyard is the grassy area behind the house. But in the UK it is simply a concrete area, no grass. You can imagine the surprise my wife and I had when we moved into our house in the UK and discovered that the advertized “backyard” was little more than a 12 x 12 concrete patio. Our friends in the UK often said that the USA and the UK were two countries separated by a common language. I still remember the odd looks we received on the tube in London when one of our American visitors loudly announced to us, and everyone else in the car, that her “pants” were falling down. I will leave it to you to find the meaning of that one if you don’t already know.

If English can present such challenges in translation, imagine what it is like trying to translate a text that is several thousand years old and several cultures removed. The Bible is just such a book and leads me to the point of today’s blog.

I just received a copy of the Common English Bible (CEB), of which I am a contributing translator. For the most part I find it to be an easy read that will help bring the Bible to life to people living in a modern age. But there a couple of points that caused my eyebrows to rise in curiosity. It has to do with gender specific language and technical terms. I will talk about gender specificity today and post about technical terms later.

The CEB, like other modern translations, has attempted to temper the male dominant language of the Bible and make it more gender friendly. Thus Paul’s letters are addressed to “brothers and sisters” rather than just “brothers.” Genesis 1:26-27 now reads “And God said let us make humanity in our image” and “God created humanity in God’s image.” I think this is an accurate and appropriate way to translate and interpret the Hebrew word “Adam” here, which can mean all of humanity and not just a “man.”

But what has me scratching my head is the use of “human” instead of “man” or "Adam" in 2:15-25. The result is that now instead of Adam naming the animals, it is done by “the human” and God realizes that it is not good for “the human” to be alone so he puts “the human” into a deep sleep and takes one of his ribs to make the woman. Adding to the oddity of this translation is the fact that all of the Hebrew pronouns in these verses are clearly masculine and translated as such. Thus God makes a helper for “him” and puts the human in a deep sleep and takes one of “his” ribs. Even though the “human” is clearly male he is not called “man” until 2:24 when the narrator talks about a man leaving his father and mother to embrace his wife. The rest of the Garden of Eden story calls the couple man and woman, but not Adam and Eve. In fact, "the human" is not called Adam until 4:1 when we are told about Adam and Eve's children. Eve ,however, is mentioned a few verses earlier in 3:20 because Adam gives the woman her name.

I am not sure what all to make of this. On the one hand, I applaud the translators and the editors in their attempt to bring gender inclusive language to the Bible so that we have a translation that reflects our modern way of thinking. But the translation of the Hebrew “Adam” as “the human” seems overformal. Granted, Adam is a human, but he is also clearly male as the pronouns indicate. Moreover, Genesis has many things to teach us including the importance of men and women in creation. Calling Adam “the human” seems like a sterilization, and attempt at making the first human an androgynous or asexual being. Perhaps there was a fear that calling the first created human a “man” would suggest that men are superior to women. While that has happened at times, I am not sure this translation gets around the problem. I think they would have been better-off translating “Adam” as a proper noun as a way to avoid the generic “man.” This would have gone some distance to diminish the gender specific language that they were unable to avoid anyway because of the masculine pronouns.

Here is a link to Genesis in the CEB. Take a look at it and let me know what you think of the first three chapters. Is this is a helpful translation? To what degree can we make an ancient text reflect our modern sensibilities? What do we gain and what do we risk?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Women in the Life of the Apostle Paul: 2

Last week we looked at the first and only named deacon in the New Testament. She happened to be a woman named Phoebe. We continue today with an examination of Romans 16:3-5. Most of chapter 16 consists of Paul sending greetings to people that he knows in Rome. The next woman we meet is Prisca/Priscilla who is married to Aquila (Today's picture is of a couple from Pompeii. I imagine this is similar to how Priscilla and Aquila may have looked).

This couple is one of the most prominent in the early church. We first encounter them in Acts 18:2 when Paul meets them in Corinth and we are told that they had recently fled Rome following the Emperor Claudius’ decree exiling all Jews from the city of Rome. The three spent time making tents together. Later, when they met Apollos in Ephesus, this couple worked together teaching and “explaining the Way of God more accurately” to him (Acts 18:24-26).

The fact that Paul greets them here indicates to us that they have returned to Rome after the death of Claudius and the ascension of Nero. It seems significant that Paul lists the wife before the husband. In fact, with two exceptions (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor 16.19), Paul and the author of Acts consistently list Prisca/Priscilla first. In a society controlled and dominated by males, this is an unusual practice. There are two possible explanations. First, perhaps Prisca was from a higher social class than Aquila and therefore given more respect. Another possible explanation is that Priscilla played a more prominent role in the church than her husband. While it is impossible to say for sure, the evidence leads me to think that the order of Paul’s list has to do with Prisca’s activity in the church rather than financial worth.

While the order of their names may give us hints about Prisca’s activity, Paul refers to both partners of this husband and wife team as “fellow workers.” This label places them into a select group of people which includes Urbanus, Timothy (Rom 16.3, 9, 21; 1 Thess 3.2), Apollos (1 Cor 3.9), Silvanus (2 Cor 1.24), Titus (2 Cor 8.23), Epaphroditus (Phil 2.25), Eudoia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil 4.3), Aristrachus, Mark, and Jesus Justus (Col 4.11) and Demas and Luke (Phm 24; see also Col 4.11). The fact that Paul qualifies this label as “fellow workers in the Lord” stipulates that they were partners with him in ministry and not just tent making.

In 16:4 Paul recounts an apparently well known event in his life when this couple risked their necks for him. We are not told exactly what they did but it may have included using their wealth to help him or even helping him to escape the angry crowd in Ephesus. Whatever the event it is apparent that the apostle holds this couple in high esteem for what they did for him, with a particular appreciation for Prisca as evidenced by naming her first.

Lastly, the high esteem in which Paul holds this couple is evident by the fact that not only are they listed first in the greetings section, but it is only here in this list that he “offers thanks” and that they receive so much more press than anyone else that follows in the list of greetings. These people are truly close to the apostle’s heart.

There is much we can learn from this couple. I cannot think of another instance in the New Testament of a husband and wife ministering together, although I am sure that there were many. But if my reading of these verses is correct, it seems that the wife had more responsibility and reputation in the ministry than the husband. This cuts across the grain of how we often view husband and wife ministry teams. Quite often the man is viewed as the lead minister with the dutiful helpful wife assisting him. But in the case of Prisca and Aquilla, the opposite seems to be true. We can use this passage to help us in two ways. First, we can recognize that both women and men can minster together and that husband and wife teams can be a natural outgrowth of their relationship. Rather than the husband preaching while the wife organizes the nursery schedule, they can both play an equal role. Now I am not saying that preaching is more important than the nursery. But the truth is we often make it that way in our minds. What if the man ran the nursery and the woman preached? My point is this, our view of ministry has often been influenced by the way we define and perceive gender roles. The fact that women have babies rather than men might mean that the wife wants to run the nursery and is better at it. But we should not allow that to pigeonhole us into ministries that are defined by our gender. We are all much better-off when we minister according to our gifting rather than what society, or even church, has told us.

One secret to a long and happy marriage is to recognize that your spouse is better at something than you are. Once you have had this “revelation” you need to simply be quiet and get out the way. Our churches would be better served if we allowed people to serve according to their gifts rather than the perceived role for their gender.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tweeting the Bible one chapter at a time. Update

Last week I posted about Chris Juby who is placing the entire Bible on Twitter. Here is a sample of the first ten chapters of Genesis. You can follow the Bible Summary on Twitter.

Gen10: Japheth's line lived in the coastlands; Ham's included Nimrod and the Canaanites; Shem's lived in the East. These formed the nations.

Gen9: God blessed Noah and set the rainbow as a sign that he would never flood the earth again. Noah got drunk and cursed Ham's son Canaan.

Gen8: The flood abated. Noah sent out a raven and two doves. When the earth was dry God called them all out of the ark. Noah built an altar.

Gen7: Noah and his family went into the ark with two of each creature. It rained for forty days and forty nights and the earth was covered.

Gen6: Humankind corrupted the earth with evil. God decided to destroy them. He told Noah to build an ark to be saved from the flood.

Gen5: Adam's line was: Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech and Noah. Noah's sons were Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Gen4: Eve's sons made offerings to God. Only Abel's was acceptable, so Cain killed him. Abel's blood cried out and God sent Cain away.

Gen3: The serpent deceived the woman; she and Adam ate from the tree. The earth became cursed, and God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden.

Gen2: God formed a man and gave him the garden in Eden, except for the tree of knowledge. Adam was alone so God made a woman as his partner.

Gen1: God created the heavens, the earth and everything that lives. He made humankind in his image, and gave them charge over the earth.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Blind Teachers and Students

In Luke 6:39-42 there is a string of Jesus’ parables that goes like this:

And he spoke to them this parable: “The blind is not able to lead the blind. Will they not fall into the pit together? The student is not above the teacher. But everyone who has been fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to someone, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you fail to see the 2x4 in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the 2x4 out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from someone else’s eye."

I used to think that the part about the student not being above the teacher was speaking to me as a student and meant that I would never be greater than those under whom I had studied. While this was somewhat disappointing, I took satisfaction that, in the future, my students would never be any better than me. Then I had a student who excelled way beyond what I could imagine and I could only hope to attain such heights.

But the passage is not really about students being forever in the shadow of their teachers. When read in context it is about what happens when students have teachers who are not well prepared or do not keep their focus on the mission. In context it is a double-sided warning to both teachers and students. Just as the blind will lead the blind into a pit so too an ill prepared teacher will lead students into an abyss. We should not accept inadequate teachers because as students we are constrained by the limitations of our teachers. It should be the hope and prayer of every teacher that our students will exceed us and that, like children, they will do us proud.

I must confess, however, that sometimes I forget the mission to which I have been called. Somehow the experiences of grad school, the process of tenure and the desire for peer recognition has caused me to forget my calling in life; that I am here because of the students. Sometimes I have even jokingly wished that the seminary could fulfill its mission without the students. If they would just send their money and stay home life would be much easier. But it is at that moment that I become a blind guide. And the students who study under me will never be any better than me. My job is to fully train my students and then they will become like me. That is, they will be driven to be the best woman or man they can be in their chosen career.

But teaching does not only take place in a classroom and it does not require an official title. All of us are actively engaged in teaching. This happens through the way we treat one another. When students see that we have respect for one another and when they realize, as we should, that everyone is an essential member of the team and that without them I cannot do my job. Jesus has some strong words for people who fail to understand this. He calls us not only blind guides but hypocrites. For you see, when we try to educate students, but are either blind or fail to recognize our own faults, we really are hindering our students. They will be no better than us and as a result society will never change.