Monthly Archives: July 2017

Finding the Correct Meaning

In this chapter, there is another question that deserves to be considered. Even if we have the right books, the right words, and we have those words adequately translated, what about the meaning? The Bible was written in other languages, for other peoples in other cultures. So how can we, living in this part of the world, this far down through the centuries, feel confident that we have really found the correct meaning? The only way, I believe, is to pick up the Bible, read it through, and see what we can learn about God. I am so grateful for the more than one hundred times I’ve gone through all sixty-six books in company with others. Each time we do it there are certain questions that arise. Some of them are simple ones that are quite readily resolved. I thought we might look at some of those first.

The best loved English version in all history has been the King James Version. But reading through the Bible, what does one do with a passage like Habakkuk 2:7: “Thou shalt be for booties unto them.” (KJV) What does that mean? Can you see booties hanging from the rear view mirror in a car? Is that what that is? Or what about Job 41:18, “By his neesings a light doth shine” (KJV). Have you seen any neesings lately? Now the old Engish word booties meant loot, or plunder. Neesings meant sneezings. Exodus 28:11 speaks of “Ouches of gold” (KJV). That would seem like something the dentist should be concerned about. And yet it actually meant settings in jewelry. Luke 17:9 says, “I trow not” (KJV). Have you trowed lately? That actually means “I think not.”

These are not errors in the King James. It is just that with the passage of time, about a thousand words in that Bible have changed their meaning, in fact sometimes the meaning is completely reversed. But there are easy remedies for the student of Scripture. Whole books have been written on the archaic words in the King James Version. Another option is to look these words up in a Bible dictionary or a commentary. There is even the revision called the New King James. The meanings given in the paragraph above were taken from that modernized version of the King James. Another option is to compare the KJV with any other modern version and the meaning of most of these unfamiliar words would become clear.

A slightly more significant change in the meaning of a word is in Romans 1:13, KJV: “Often times I purposed to come unto you, but was let hitherto.” Well, if Paul was let, why didn’t he go? “Let” in those days did not mean to permit; it meant to prevent or hinder. This is still the word often used in the game of tennis. If you’ve served and your ball has hit the net and dropped into the appropriate square on the other side, it is not a “net ball,” it is supposed to be a “let ball.” At Wimbledon it is always a “let ball,” which means a ball that was hindered or prevented from proceeding on to the server’s goal. In Romans 1:13, Paul intended to visit Rome, but he was hindered from doing so.

An even more significant illustration of meaning change is in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, KJV: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” Paul surely wasn’t saying that when the Lord comes and the dead rise, we who are alive won’t want the dead to go up first, we’ll prevent them from doing so. If that were true, we wouldn’t be very safe to save, doing that to those former saints now rising! But it has no such meaning. The old English word “prevent” actually means “to precede, to go before.” Now the passage makes sense. “Prevent” in those days did not mean prevent, it meant to precede.

The early Christians were grieving that some of their loved ones had died before the Lord returned. They had been under the impression that they would live to see Him come. What would you tell a dying Christian who said in disappointment “I had hoped I would live to see the Lord come?” There’s a beautiful message in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul says, “Look, the dead are at no disadvantage. We who are alive and remain shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Who will rise first? The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up with them to meet the Lord in the air. This is a great paragraph to read at funerals. But it has to be translated right. Not that it is an error. It’s just that the key word has changed meaning through the years. The passage is a great message of comfort when it is properly translated into modern speech.

Another puzzling passage, which sometimes gives rise to strange theology, is in John 20:17, KJV. Mary sees Jesus on resurrection Sunday and falls at His feet to worship Him. And Jesus says, “Touch me not.” Now why couldn’t she touch Him? Jesus explains: “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Does that mean that if Mary had touched Jesus, He would not have been able to go up to heaven, and the whole plan of salvation would have come to nothing? Was her restraint that morning as important as the crucifixion? That is impossible. That would really violate common sense. So one needs to look more carefully. In the original language, there are two ways of saying “don’t do” something. One is, “don’t begin to do it.” The other is “don’t go on doing it.” In this text Jesus was saying, “Don’t go on holding me. Don’t cling to me.” The modern versions all have this correctly. Then it is a perfectly gracious message. There is nothing arbitrary about it at all.

Another important one is John 2:4. Perhaps you remember the wedding at Cana, when they ran out of wine and Mary said to Jesus, “They need some wine.” Did He turn to his mother and say, “Woman, what have I to do with thee” (KJV)? Let’s say you have a son who is not responding too politely when his mother asks for help doing the dishes. So you think, “Well, at worship we’ll read about how polite Jesus always was to His mother. Why don’t we read the Gospel of John for worship?” If you do that, John 1 will be all right. But then you will come to John 2 and Cana. You are reading, hoping that your son will listen and see how polite Jesus always was. And then Jesus says to His mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” And your son says, “That is what I will do next time Mother asks me to dry the dishes. I’ll say, `Woman, what have I to do with thee?'” Then you’ll wish you had started reading some other gospel!

You know that can’t be the case. God is love and love is never rude. You know that Jesus wasn’t rude. Once again we need to get back into the language, the culture, and the idiom of the day. “Woman” can mean wife or mother or whatever the circumstances called for. What Jesus said was the equivalent of “mother,” not just “woman.” “Mother, how is it you bring that problem to Me? I have never performed a miracle before. My hour has not yet come.” I once heard a Jewish scholar say, “One thing is for sure, Jesus spoke politely to His mother in the idiom of the day.” In the Phillips translation, it says, “Mother, why do you bring that problem to Me?”

Chapter 6: “Evaluating the Evidence”

This blog begins chapter six of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures by Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that follow are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

These conversations about God take another look at our Heavenly Father in the larger setting of the great, universe-wide controversy over His character and government. The topic for this chapter is “Evaluating the Evidence,” that is, weighing and understanding the evidence that is the basis for our decisions about God in this great controversy.

We know that all God asks of us is trust. If we would only trust in Him enough, He could readily heal the damage sin has done. That is all He asked before the war began. That’s all He asks now, even of us who have been so damaged and caught up in this war. All He will ever ask of us in the future is trust. To say it one more time: where there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, without reservations, there is perfect security, perfect freedom, perfect peace. And this is what God desires the most.

But God has been accused of being unworthy of our trust. Specifically, He has been accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And if He is that kind of person, He is not safe to trust. Sadly, many of His followers also conceive of Him in this way and seek to win people to this kind of a God.

In the previous chapters of this book we’ve considered God’s unwillingness to issue mere claims or denials. Anybody could do that. But when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it does no good to deny it or to simply claim to be trustworthy. So God has answered the charges against Him with the evidence of demonstration. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a sufficiently long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, especially difficult ones, can trust be re-established and confirmed. The Bible is a record of just such a demonstration.

The best approach, then, is to pick up our Bibles and read the evidence, all of it. But when we pick up our Bibles, there are questions that naturally arise. We considered three of them in the previous chapter. How do we know we have the right books? How do we know we have the words accurately preserved through all the centuries? And how do we know they have been accurately translated from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek? We have shown that there is more than enough evidence for answering those questions. We can confidently say that for all practical purposes we have the books of the Bible as originally written.

Questions and Answers (5:4)

Lou: You mentioned the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and others related to the New Testament. I’m under the impression that in the New Testament there are some quotations from the Old Testament Apocrypha. What about that?

Graham: Well, there are some interesting similarities. Whether they’re quotations or not is debatable. In Jude it mentions that Michael the Archangel was going down to resurrect Moses, and he and Satan argued about it (Jude 9). That story is told in some detail in The Assumption of Moses, which is a pseudepigraphical book from the time between the testaments. Of course, if the story were true, then the two accounts could be based on a common source. A second similarity would be the reference, also in Jude, where it says, “Enoch, the seventh from Adam, predicted the Lord would come with ten thousand of His saints” (based on Jude 14). That is in the pseudepigraphical book of Enoch. Of course, if Enoch said that stunning thing before the Flood, the “Lord is coming with ten thousand of His saints,” that would have been told over many a back fence. And eventually those memorable words found their place in both the apocryphal books and also in the book of Jude.

Lou: So you are saying that if something is in the Apocrypha, that does not make it automatically wrong.

Graham: Right! There is a long list of things in the Apocrypha which are quite evidently true. John was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil and survived, Peter was crucified upside down, and Isaiah was sawed in half in a hollow log. The latter is from The Martyrdom of Isaiah. Newspapers have some truth in them too, from time to time.

Lou: I was interested that you have read all the ancient books related to the Bible and you see a distinction between the sixty-six books in the biblical canon and all of these pseudepigraphical and apocryphal books.

Graham: An interesting example is the apocryphal story of Jesus playing with one of His friends. The boy either threw a stone, as one manuscript says, or he bumped Jesus, according to another, and Jesus in anger turned to curse His playmate and the playmate died. And the parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and Mary and said, “Please, remove yourselves from this community. We do not want this violent child living among us.” They were talking about Jesus! I could tell you dozens more stories like that from the New Testament Apocrypha.

Lou: Here’s another question, shifting gears a bit. “You spoke about sanctification. What is this? If we sincerely accept Jesus as our Savior, how can we ever be lost? Once we are saved, aren’t we always saved?”

Graham: The question is based on a rather legal understanding of what went wrong. But if what went wrong is that God’s creatures began to distrust, became rebellious and left God, as it were, we not only need to be set right, but we want to be kept right. We want to be kept in that relationship of love and trust and admiration and willingness to listen. But I could be set right and kept right for a while, and still be free to leave. And that’s how I understand what Paul said, when he wrote, “I discipline myself very closely, lest having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). The very essence of the truth about God is that He values nothing higher than our freedom. It tells me that a million years down the line, I’ll still be free to go.

Lou: An eleven year old wrote in, “Why are there so many views of who God is?” Could you cover all that in about thirty seconds?

Graham: There are so many views of God. You couldn’t list them in thirty seconds. I think they arise from many different sources. One is from reading the Bible selectively, here a little and there a little, rather than taking it as a whole. Another reason is that we might bring our view of God into our reading of the text. And there is also the influence of the adversary behind the scenes. But I think among people who really want to know God, the greatest source of diversity is that we each have our favorite texts about God. I have my text. You have your text. If we take the Bible as a whole, however, there is a greater possibility that we might come into the kind of unity that Paul talks about in Ephesians (Eph 4:13, KJV), a “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” And that’s our goal in this book.
That’s brings me to the topic of the next chapter, “If we have a reliable record of the evidence, can we be confident that we correctly understand the meaning?” That topic is looking more and more important as we carry on these conversations about God.

Questions and Answers (5:3)

Lou: When I go to a religious bookstore and ask for a Bible, I notice Bibles that are advertised as helping me with a lot of explanatory notes. What about that kind of thing? Can that be useful?

Graham: Some are helpful and some are not. The notes certainly aren’t inspired. The headings aren’t either. That’s true even when the heading in the Song of Solomon says, “Christ’s Love for the Church.” That’s an old tradition, but it’s not inspired. For another example, there’s an extraordinary note in one printing of the Matthew’s Bible (around 1549) to Peter’s comment that wives should obey their husbands in all things (1 Pet 3:1). In the margin of this Bible, which has lots of helpful notes, it says, “Yet it is the duty of the husband to beat the fear of the Lord into his wife, that she may learn to obey.” Comments like this leave me in favor of having the text pure and unadulterated, so I can make up my own mind. There are also many Bibles with helpful margins, so long as you realize they do not come with the same inspiration, and you read them carefully.

Lou: Does your church, the Seventh-day Adventist church, have an official version?

Graham: I think some have rather wished so. But it speaks well of our worldwide outlook that we don’t limit ourselves to an official version. We wish to share the picture of God with every person under Heaven, in all the languages of earth. So how can we have one official translation? There’s only one thing that could be official, and that’s the original: The Hebrew, the Aramaic, and the Greek, from which all translations ultimately come. But we’re prepared to go to the world using any version, any translation. And that’s why I like to relax when I’m in someone else’s home and say, “Which Bible do you have there? Let’s use yours.”

Lou: That leads to another question. If I heard you rightly, we do not have any of the original words that the prophet Isaiah wrote, for example. We have copies of an earlier copy. And in these manuscripts there are a number of variations. In other words, a particular manuscript may add a word, leave one out, or use a completely different word. Are there any Christian beliefs, such as the picture of God, that are affected by these variations?

Graham: It’s very interesting to look through all of them and see how relatively few issues there are and then look at some of the most colorful ones. Since you mentioned it, let me pick an illustration that affects the number one Christian belief, the picture of God. John 5:3, 4, in the King James Bible, describes a large crowd of sick people gathered at the pool of Bethesda. It had five porches, and every once in a while the water would move. Now what caused the water to move?
The way the story is told here, God would look out over the parapets of Heaven, see the crowd there, call over His angels and say, “It’s worth going down again. Go down and stir up the water. And remember, first one in is healed.” And this went on for years and years and years. Can you imagine an angel saying to God, “God, we’ve been watching a man there struggling for thirty-three years to get in, and we angels are so sorry for him; could we bend the rule this once and heal him? Because there’s no way he’s going to get in.” And God says, “You know I never change. First one in is healed.”
I never did like that story. And I was so relieved to start learning Greek in 1938 and discover that the idea that an angel stirred the water is a legend that crept in later on. The older manuscripts simply say, “the water moved,” without any explanation. Superstitious readers probably assumed that an angel did it. More likely, it was drainage from the temple area, a spring, or an intermittent underground stream. In any case, that legend eventually crept into the text.
Look in the early manuscripts and you have a magnificent story there. The real truth was that on a Saturday afternoon God walked by. And the paralyzed man looked up and saw the kindest face he had ever seen. And the kind face said, “Would you like to be well?” And he said, “I surely would.” And that kind face did not berate the man for squandering his health in youthful self-indulgence. He simply said, “Then pick up your little mat and go home, and you will be well.” That’s the real picture of God.

Lou: So the angel story actually appears in a manuscript?

Graham: Quite a few, but later on.

Lou: Does that mean our more recent versions, which have taken manuscript study quite seriously, would be more reliable?

Graham: They tend to be based on the early manuscripts, which we didn’t know about at the time the King James was translated. But there isn’t a long list of these strange variations. I picked out a more colorful one. There are very few. And we could get along without every one of them. One that might seem helpful is the Trinity text in 1 John 5:7, 8 (KJV) that has no support at all in the manuscripts. But I never did think it was the best way to support the Trinity anyway. You can do that from the Gospel of John and elsewhere much better. So we don’t lose anything by going back and comparing all these hundreds and thousands of manuscripts. By looking at the evidence as a whole, there is less danger of distortion.

Questions and Answers (5:2)

Lou: Maybe we all need to learn Hebrew and Greek? Is that the best answer to the translation problem; to read it in the original for ourselves?

Graham: I like to say to medical, dental and nursing students that I hope they won’t spend as much time studying Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek as I have. We live in an age of specialization. When I have a pain somewhere, I don’t want their expertise in the biblical languages. I want their help for my specific problem. So let them study their specialty and let me study mine. I’ll go to them when I need their help, and they’re welcome to phone me when they need my help on the biblical languages. But thanks to the existence of these wonderful translations, it isn’t necessary for most people to study the languages. But there ought to be somebody in the community whom you could phone when a technical problem arises.

Lou: You are saying, then, that the multiplicity of versions is a real strength.

Graham: That’s where the safety is. I wouldn’t want just one translation. Sometimes I have almost my whole collection of 150 out on the floor.

Lou: I have heard the question raised: Isn’t it true that the translator’s theological positions are often reflected in their translations? For example, aren’t the Ten Commandments translated differently in the Roman Catholic Bible? Aren’t they numbered differently? Don’t they read differently?

Graham: On the contrary, Catholic translations are very precise. Some of the best translations are of Roman Catholic origin, although they don’t always use the most understandable English. Nevertheless, over time, Catholic translations have become clearer and clearer. They are frankly some of the very best. The Jerusalem Bible is very readable. So is The New American Bible.
To show you how candid and dependable the Catholic versions are, let me refer to the Kleist and Lilly translation. In Romans 6, where there is a reference to being buried in baptism, there is a footnote by these two Jesuit scholars at the bottom. “Paul is obviously alluding here to the early Christian custom of baptism by immersion. The descent into the water is suggestive of descent into the grave. The ascent from the water is suggestive of resurrection to newness of life.” I can’t think of a better note than that.
Coming back to your original question, the Ten Commandments read exactly the same in Catholic Bibles. They do count them differently, as you know. The Sabbath commandment is number three. So if you were to ask a Catholic regarding the Church’s position on the fourth commandment, you’d be surprised by the response. But they are not the only ones. Luther and some others have counted the Sabbath as number three and split the tenth commandment into two; nine and ten. But that doesn’t affect the message of the biblical text.

Lou: Graham, you referred earlier to paraphrases and to The Living Bible. There has been considerable controversy over them. Is a paraphrase a real Bible? Are they trustworthy?

Graham: Well, in the first place, there is no way to translate without paraphrasing. So there is some paraphrasing in every single translation, unless the translator goes word for word literal, as in a Greek/English transliteration, for example. But such translations tend to be quite lame with the words out of proper English order. Have you ever tried to translate French into English word for word? It doesn’t make much sense. So all translations are somewhat paraphrased. That means a re-phrasing of the original text.
Are paraphrases trustworthy? It depends on how far you go. The author of The Living Bible, for example (Kenneth Taylor), departed a long way from the original text. In fact, sometimes he expanded a sentence into a whole paragraph! There’s no way you could reproduce the original languages from The Living Bible. You almost could with Goodspeed. That’s what is so amazing. His is a readable American idiom but without multiplying words. On the other hand, with Taylor’s paraphrases (The Living Bible), when he’s right, he’s clearly and brilliantly right. And when he’s wrong, in my opinion, he’s very clearly wrong. The best thing about it is—he’s clear.

Lou: But sometimes clearly wrong.

Graham: Well, let me show you a time he gets it right, and I’ll skip the wrong one. Psalm 120:1, KJV: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” That’s beautiful. It’s like being in Loma Linda, and looking across the valley to the snow-covered mountains. Very inspiring. But in the Bible, the Psalmist was referring to the fertility cults at the top of the hill. According to Hosea, the leaders of Israel went up into those mountains to sacrifice with the cult prostitutes. They were going up to those groves and engaging in immorality. And so the 120th Psalm actually says in the Hebrew, “Shall I lift up mine eyes unto the hills? Never. My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 120:1-2). So Dr. Taylor paraphrases, “Shall I look to the mountain gods for help? Never. I will look to the God who created the mountains.” I say he is brilliantly right on this text, though it is a rather free paraphrase. I wouldn’t be afraid to use The Living Bible, but in the interests of precision, I would want to have some of these others alongside.