Friday, February 11, 2011

The Invention of the Book

As part of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, Ashland Seminary has set up a temporary exhibit of manuscripts and Bibles. One of the things I mention during a tour of our little museum is the movement from the scroll to the codex. People don't often think about how this was an important technological improvement. Information could be stored, accessed and transported much easier in a codex than a scroll.

So in honor of the momentous advance that the invention of the codex represents, I am posting the below video. It demonstrates that moving to a new technology has always been met with confusion, fear and resistance. It has been around for a few years, but it is worth a laugh. Happy Friday!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Do we need more accessible language in baptism services?

Well, some in the Church of England seem to think so. Reuters is reporting that members of the Church’s General Synod, agreed that the Liturgical Commission should provide supplementary material to help prevent the eyes of worshippers “glazing over” during important parts of the service.

The problem according to Tim Stafford, author of the motion, is that

“parts of the service were difficult to use “without seeming inappropriately schoolmaster-like”, he said. Stratford said he did not disagree with the words currently being used, such as “I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, and I renounce evil.” “But it sounds to many as if the church wants an entirely religious response — removed from our behaviour, actions and conversations”. Instead, he wanted words that showed Christ’s neighbourly love. “Not inquisitorial, but aspirational.”

I thought renouncing evil and repenting of sin was a religious response that included our actions, behaviors and conversations. I would hope that one who goes through this process would, in-turn, show Christ’s neighborly love to others.

The problem seems to arise from the lack of biblical and theological literacy among those seeking entrance to the church.

Stratford said many people today did not have enough background in the Bible to understand the images used in the current baptism services. This was “not a plea for a prayer in Scouse, but for a prayer that the majority of non-theologically-versed Britons would understand.” He gave the following as an example of what he called “problematic sentences”:

Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

He suggested replacing that with a prayer that dropped the Biblical references but kept the meaning:

Heavenly Father, bless this water,
that whoever is washed in it
may be made one with Christ
in the fellowship of your Church,
and be brought through every tribulation
to share the risen life that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hmm, so let me see if I get this right. We have an entire population of biblically and illiterate people who want to have their children baptized into a faith of which the parents have little or no knowledge. Therefore, rather than working harder to educate them about the important symbolic connections between the Exodus, baptism and the resurrection, we will instead change the wording. It is not that I have any particular problems with the wording of the proposed prayer. But I am curious why we are letting the tail wag the dog? Perhaps the baptized will pick up some of this information along the way as they attend Sunday school and catechism classes as they prepare for confirmation. But I wonder how many who are baptized actually ever make it that far.

You can listen to the synod debate the motion here.

The Beauty of Books and Codex Sinaiticus

Last week I posted a video clip about the Sisters of Sinai who discovered our oldest copies of the Gospels in Syriac. The found the codex among the manuscripts at Saint Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai.

Another famous codex found at the same monastery some 50 years earlier is the Codex Sinaiticus. It is 1600 years old and the oldest most complete Bible that we have. You can see the Bible and search it here.

Mark Goodacre has posted that BBC 4 is running a series called The Beauty of Books: Ancient Bibles. Unfortunately, it does not seem to work in the USA. If anyone knows how to get around the restrictions let me know.

Here are two videos that give a brief overview. The first discusses the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, its content and the attempts to put it online. The second is a two minute clip from the BBC series.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Infertility and the Bible 4: Options Available to the Childless

As noted in the introduction, it is not always appreciated that the childless woman was in a situation of powerlessness to alter her circumstances. Medical treatments were few to non-existent and would require financial means. Thus compounding the feeling of powerlessness by the childless couple/woman would be the reality of limited resources especially for poorer individuals. Nonetheless, the importance of children to the family structure meant that there were a number of options of which the childless couples/women could avail themselves.

This week we will begin looking at the various options available to the childless woman/couple. We begin with prayer.

Appeal to the gods

Among the options available to the childless couple, the first, and probably least costly, would be an appeal to the gods. As mentioned above, several prayers are preserved from Mesopotamia which appeal to the gods to provide the petitioner with a child. In a prayer to Ishtar a woman says: “Grant me a name and descendants, let my womb be productive”.[1] A Sumerian proverb reflects on the presumption of the deity’s necessary involvement when it says: “Marrying several wives is human, getting many children is divine”.[2] This sense of dependence on the gods is emphasized in the Hittite Story of Appu who was a wealthy man, but had no children. He appeals to the Sun God to help and the story concludes with the god granting him children.[3]

In Egypt domestic deities included Bes and Taweret who not only provided protection over the household, but were strongly connected to pregnancy, childbirth and newborn infants. Bes is often depicted unclothed with his genitals exposed while Taweret usually has a swollen, pregnant belly. Both were often depicted in temple scenes depicting a king’s birth. Amulets in the form of the two deities have been found in excavations and were probably worn by women during pregnancy.[4] In addition to Bes and Taweret was the goddess Hathor who was also connected to fertility and childbirth and whose name is frequently included in prayers and hymns.[5]

The Hebrew Bible also focuses on the need for God’s help in bearing children. Several times a narrator will relate that it was God who either opened or closed a womb (Gen 16:2; 20:18; 1 Sam 1:5). Prayer for fertility is recounted on at least two occasions in the Bible. In Genesis 25:21 we read that Rebekah was barren, but that her husband Isaac prayed for her and God opened her womb. Hannah asks for and receives a son from God in a prayer that includes a vow (1 Sam 1:10-20). Although no prayers for fertility are attributed to Leah and Rachel, the narrative implies that this was the case. Genesis 29:31 notes that since Leah was unloved God opened her womb, implying that, while not specifically identified as barren, she had not yet been able to have children and had perhaps asked for God’s help. When Rachel, who is identified as barren by the narrator, gives birth to her first child it is because God remembered and “listened to her” again implying prayers for fertility (Gen 30:22). In each case it is apparent that conception is considered a gift from God that must, at times, be sought after when it does not seem that God has blessed the woman/couple with children.

Next week we will look at medical and magical means used to cure infertility

[1] Van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel, 86.

[2] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel,192.

[3] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel,193.

[4] G. Robins, “Women and Children in peril, 29.

[5] G. Robins, “Women and Children in peril, 32-33.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Did Jesus get mad when asked to heal people?

A friend of mine recently asked me a question about Mark 1:41. He was reading the verse in the 2010 NIV on his cellphone when he noticed something that struck him as odd. A leper says to Jesus "If you are willing you can make me clean." The narrator then describes Jesus as "indignant" as he stretches out his hand and says "I am willing. Be clean!"

My friend was taken back because when he had read that verse in other versions it said that Jesus was "filled with compassion" not that he was indignant. This seems to be a significant shift in the atmosphere of the scene. Jesus is no longer presented as compassionate but annoyed. What is the new NIV doing?

It seems that the translators have chosen to use a less widely attested reading. While there is more textual evidence for describing Jesus as "'compassionate," some NT scholars think the description of Jesus as "angry" is more accurate. Let me explain.

In the context of the story, describing Jesus as "angry" seems to fit some of the other vocabulary. In 1:43, after Jesus has healed the leper, Jesus "upbraids" or "sternly warns" the man and then sends him away. Actually, the terminology is "drove him out" the same description of what the Spirit did to Jesus after his baptism. Thus describing Jesus as "compassionate" in 1:41 does not seem to fit with his actions in 1:43. It is easier to see an angry rather than compassionate Jesus scolding a man and driving him out.

Bruce Metzger was not so sure. In his textual commentary he notes that it is easy to understand how a scrupulous scribe might substitute the word for "compassion" in place of "anger". On the other hand, it is hard to account for someone substituting "anger" for "compassion" (p. 65). Thus anger might be the original reading. But he also points out that Jesus gets angry in Mark 3:5 and 10:14 and scribes did not find a need to change that terminology. Thus, English translations from the KJV on have described Jesus as "compassionate" here rather than "angry."

But the NIV 2010 and the CEB both are now describing Jesus as angry here. Why Jesus might have been angry is difficult to say. Perhaps he was mad that the leper questioned his willingness to heal him? Or maybe Jesus was annoyed that his preaching tour was being interrupted (1:35-39). The reason is not stated and thus may explain why, if "anger" was the original reading, it was changed by a later scribe. There is no clear explanation for why Jesus should be angry with someone seeking to be healed. But he does exhibit compassion to those who he ministers to (Mark 6:34; 8:2; 9:22).

In his commentary on Mark R. T. France suggests that Jesus was angered by the suffering that the disease and society had inflicted upon the man (p. 117). But this fails to explain why Jesus than "upbraids" the man and "drives him out" in 1:43.

Yet, this is a rather odd section of Mark. In the paragraph prior to this one Jesus goes off to pray and stays there till his disciples find him. When they tell him "everyone is looking for you" he replies, "let's go someplace else to preach" (1:38). We are accustomed to thinking Jesus wants to be found by those who seek him. But in Mark 1:38 Jesus does not want to be found and it is possible that he gets angry at those who question his willingness to heal them.

It will be interesting to see how acceptance of this reading plays out in teaching and preaching. Some NT scholars, like France, have already incorporated it into their commentaries. But what kind of a rethink will it require for us as we now encounter a Jesus who possibly gets inexplicably angry? This is not the Jesus that is often portrayed today. But it may be the Jesus of Mark's Gospel.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mark Twain and Bible Translation - Can we learn anything from Huckleberry Finn?

Over the last six weeks a news piece has surfaced here and there in between other, and perhaps more worthy, news items. It seems that a revision of Mark Twain's classic story Huckleberry Finn has been released in a version that is more reflective of 21 st century sensibilities. This new version has been stripped of the "N word" that Twain used to refer to African-Americans and other offensive terms like "injun" when referring to Native-American. The logic behind these changes to Twain's work is based on the fact that the use of such terms to identify people is no longer acceptable. Some schools were no longer including this classic on reading lists lest children be exposed to archaic, narrow minded thinking. Now, school children can once again read a classic American story.

The response has been interesting. While some can see the point, others are not convinced that this the right thing to do. Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist and African-American, wrote that censoring Huck Finn is wrong, wrong, wrong. Part of Pitt's argument is that "it is never a good idea to sugar coat the past."

The irony in this story is that Twain and ole Huckleberry are strangers neither to controversy nor book bans. When the book was first published in 1895 it was banned in the USA by libraries due to its crude wording like a reference to Huck "scratching". There were no problems with the "N word", even though it appeared over 200 times. In fact, if there was any race controversy it was aimed at the relationship Twain created between a runaway slave and a young white boy. The two experience a host of adventures as they travel down the Mississippi together.

Some labeled Twain's book as subversive to southern way of life and the order of the races. And they may have been right. While Twain was certainly a man of his society, he did not necessarily support it. Twain was a critic of society and often used his writing to stick a finger in the eye of society's assumptions.

So should we censor Twain? Probably not. As Pitts argues, it prevents us from appreciating where we were as a nation and to learn from it. I am not suggesting that we begin using the "n-word" again. But removing it from a book that was written over 100 years ago inhibits our ability to teach about and learn from that period in our nation's history.

Which leads me to the second-half of this post's title. How can or should this debate inform us about Bible translation? To what degree should we "revise" and "rework" the Bible to make it more palatable for today's readers? What do we gain and what do we lose?

Any easy target in this discussion is gender inclusive language. I have already made it clear in other posts that I support efforts in this direction. For instance, I think it is a good and acceptable idea to add words like "sisters" to Paul's address to"brothers" in his letters. I also think translating the Greek word anthropos as "human being" rather than as "man" is not only a good idea, it is more accurate.

But I also have asked what are or should be the limits of our efforts. For instance, to what extent should we do away with all male centered language in the Bible? Should we remove or change every masculine pronoun that refers to God? On the one hand, this will remove a potential barrier to female readers who have either been taught or concluded that God is a man. On the other hand, it also eliminate an opportunity to interact with the humanness of the Bible.

What I mean is, I am not aware of any theologian who would suggest that God is a man. But what we see in the Bible is that the authors, presumably all men, projected their gender bias and assumptions on God. They described God in ways that make God seem like a man. If we change this then we also erase a period of history and are unable to learn from it. We limit our ability to learn from our past and recognize that people have an ongoing history of interaction with the divine and that sometimes (often) we get it wrong. We make God to reflect who we are.

So I wonder what Twain can teach us about Bible translation. Of course there are many differences between Huckleberry Finn and the Bible. Twain wrote in English, not Hebrew and Greek, so there is no need for translation. I am also unaware of any major religious movement that uses Huckleberry Finn as a source of inspiration and guidance.

But what do we lose when we change that which is or appears to be archaic and narrow minded? Do we limit our ability to learn from our past? Do we make it impossible to see how the people of God have, at times, projected wrong ideas about God? Are we in danger of doing the same thing? What will others say about us hundreds of years from now as they study our efforts to update the bible and make it more acceptable to twenty-first century sensibilities? Will they say we sugar coated history and the Bible?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Jesus Lizard

Why is this reptile called the Jesus Lizard? Watch and see. This is much more entertaining and educational than that Super Bowl thing that is on today.

Thanks to Heidi for this.