Did the Church suppress Jesus' message of forgiveness?

Tommy Wasserman of Evangelical Textual Criticism reports on a New Dissertation in TC on the Pericope of the Adulteress, i.e. on the passage John 7:53-8:11 which is omitted or relegated to a footnote in some Bibles (including TNIV), because most scholars do not consider it to be an original part of John’s Gospel.

In this new dissertation (I have not read it) John David Punch looks in detail into the text critical issues relating to this passage. According to the author’s summary and Wasserman’s post, Punch examines five theories which could explain the textual evidence. Wasserman writes:

Although the author said in the summary that “[n]o particular theory is advocated for” it is nevertheless clear that in the end he favors #5 Ecclesiastical Suppression …

That is to say, Punch’s favoured theory is, in his own words,

Ecclesiastical Suppression, suggesting that the Church omitted the pericope out of fears that it could be misinterpreted and/or misapplied.

Now Punch also writes that “the theory is likely unproveable”. But if it is true, it raises some interesting questions. Why might the Church have chosen to suppress this particular passage of Scripture? Could it be because this is the clearest teaching in the Bible that sinners should not be condemned, but forgiven and told to “Go and sin no more”?

That message of forgiveness is implicit in the whole of New Testament teaching, but it is not one that the Church has always upheld. At some times in the early Church, perhaps including the period when this passage could have been suppressed, the false teaching was in circulation that sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven. At other times the Church has treated sexual sins as far more serious than most others, and adulterous women and prostitutes as quite beyond hope of salvation – quite against Jesus’ teaching here and elsewhere. To Christian leaders with that attitude this passage, included in most mediaeval and modern Bibles, must always have been an embarrassment.

In our broken world the Church needs to emphasise again Jesus’ teaching of unconditional forgiveness, while not forgetting the “sin no more” conclusion. If this passage can be rehabilitated as a genuine part of the Bible, which this dissertation might help to do, that would be a great help in breaking down the barriers of guilt and unforgiveness which keep so many people apart from one another and from God.

Faith is not a gift – at least not in Ephesians 2:8

It is not often that I hear a clear exegetical error in a sermon in my church. But I heard one last night. The preacher at the evening service, not the pastor, claimed that faith was a gift of God, and appealed to Ephesians 2:8 for support:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God …

Ephesians 2:8 (TNIV)

Well, it is not surprising that the preacher interpreted the verse in this way. (I don’t remember which Bible version it was quoted out of, perhaps NIV whose wording here is quite similar to TNIV’s.) In the English it certainly looks as if “this” refers back to “faith”, or else perhaps to “grace”.

But in the Greek text of this verse the word translated “this”, touto, cannot refer back to the words for “faith”, pistis, or “grace”, charis. That is because touto is a neuter pronoun, and cannot agree with either of the feminine nouns pistis and charis.

If you doubt that this can be so clear, consider this English sentence: “With John’s help Mary gave me what I need – it was wonderful.” If someone (probably someone who didn’t know much English) said that “it” here referred to Mary, or to John, then we English speakers would immediately know this was wrong, as “it” cannot refer to a person – and so in this sentence must refer to the whole situation.

Similarly in the Greek of Ephesians 2:8 the neuter pronoun touto can only refer to the whole situation. What is described here as the gift of God is not faith, or grace, but the entire process of the readers’ salvation.

The problem is really with how this verse has been translated. As English does not make gender distinctions in the same way as Greek, a straightforward English translation of this verse is misleading. RSV, NRSV and ESV do somewhat better than NIV and TNIV here, with “this is not your own doing”, as “doing” cannot easily refer back to faith. But to make the point really clear the whole verse needs to be rephrased, perhaps like the following:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.

Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)

Now our preacher last night was not using this verse to prove Calvinism or something similar. But it has in the past been misused in this way. There is a possible argument from 1 Corinthians 4:7 (already used by Augustine of Hippo) that faith is a gift. And certainly faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:9 – but this faith is usually understood as something different from saving faith in Jesus Christ. However, if you want to argue this point, that saving faith is a gift from God, you need to find evidence other than Ephesians 2:8.

Incoherence in 1 Timothy 2

I just got home from an event of which I was in fact one of the organisers: Jim Ramsay,  Director of the Department of Evangelism in the Diocese of Sydney, was speaking at my home church building (as a hired venue) on Every church a mission centre – strategy, leadership and ideas. I appreciated what he had to say, much of which was about the importance of prayer in evangelism. But it came as no surprise to me, and probably wouldn’t to others familiar with Sydney Anglicanism, that he based his talk on a passage from the ESV Bible. And, given his subject, it made sense that he used the very same controversial chapter from ESV that Suzanne McCarthy has recently been complaining about: 1 Timothy 2. But Jim, reading only as far as verse 8, avoided the gender issue which upset Suzanne, except that on verse 8 he said that women were also called to pray.

It was concerning the ESV rendering of verse 5 that Suzanne wrote:

It is no longer possible to preach even the basic salvation of half the human race from the ESV … the ESV states clearly that Christ Jesus is not a mediator between Christ and women.

In a follow-up post Suzanne quotes the following from the ESV preface:

Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original.

What I noticed when Jim read out the passage was ESV’s lamentable failure to keep to this principle in this passage, 1 Timothy 2:1-8. In the Greek two different words for “man” or “human being” are used, one four times and the other once. Here is how they have been translated in various versions, in approximate date order:

Original Greek: v.1: panton anthropon; v.4: pantas anthropous; v.5: anthropon, anthropos; v.8: andras.

KJV: v.1: all men; v.4: all men; v.5: men, the man; v.8: men.

RSV: identical to KJV.

NIV: v.1: everyone; v.4: all men; v.5: men, the man; v.8: men.

NRSV: v.1: everyone; v.4: everyone; v.5: humankind … human; v.8: men.

ESV: v.1: all people; v.4: all people; v.5: men, the man; v.8: men.

TNIV: v.1: everyone; v.4: all people; v.5: human beings … human; v.8: men.

It seems that none of these versions have done a good job of maintaining the coherence of this passage. In verses 1-7 there is a clear theme of what is applicable to the whole of humankind irrespective of gender (anthropos): prayers are to be made for them (v.1) because God desires them to be saved (v.4) and has provided the mediator to make this possible (v.5). Following that the author provides different instructions for male (aner) (v.8) and female (vv.9-15) readers. For this passage to make sense as a whole the Greek words anthropos and aner need to be translated consistently and distinctly. But none of the versions I have quoted have done this properly.

I applaud KJV and RSV for maintaining coherence in their rendering of anthropos as “man”, a good rendering at the time when “man” was commonly used in this gender generic sense. But they were let down by the weakness of the English language of the time, which has since been corrected, in that there was no suitable distinct word that they could use to refer to male humans only.

NRSV and TNIV have at least managed to make a clear distinction between gender generic anthropos and gender specific aner. But they have done so at the expense of losing the coherence of the “all people” theme in vv.1-7.

ESV, I am sorry to say, has gone for the worst of both worlds. It starts well by revising RSV’s “all men” in vv.1,4 to “all people”, and maintaining the contrast with “men” in v.8. But it is let down by its rendering of v.5, which seems to have been considered in isolation from its context. Or perhaps they simply omitted to revise this verse, which is identical to RSV. As a result a reader of ESV could easily assume that the “men” referred to here are to be contrasted with the “all people” of the previous verse and are instead to be identified with the “men” of v.8. Indeed this is how Suzanne seems to have read this verse.

Now I am sure that it is not the intention of the ESV translators to teach that “Christ Jesus is not a mediator between Christ and women”. But if so they need to demonstrate this. I suppose they have done so by putting this footnote on verse 5:

men and man render the same Greek word that is translated people in verses 1 and 4

But Jim Ramsay didn’t read out or refer to this footnote, or copy it on his handout, and I’m sure the same will almost always apply when this verse is read out during public preaching or teaching. It is simply not appropriate to put a misleading translation in the main text and a correction in a footnote.

So I call on the ESV translation team, as well as the TNIV and NRSV teams, to revise their wording of this passage to ensure that the theme of “all people” is clear in verses 1-7 and contrasted from the “men only” instruction of verse 8.

I give my body a black eye

Several bloggers over the last few days have been looking at how to translate 1 Corinthians 9:27, especially the part for which I can offer the literal translation

I give my body a black eye and lead it in slavery.

The conversation seems to have started with TC, who prefers the TNIV rendering

I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave.

Nathan’s first offering

I black my eyes, bringing my body into subjection

was later revised to

I beat my body down, forcing it into submission.

Doug responded to Nathan’s first version by noting that

The passage is replete with metaphors drawn from the experience of (especially) the Isthmian games which Paul may have experienced first hand. … his emphasis is on training rather than competing … Paul shows no sign of discomfort with the imagery of the gym, but seems at ease in the culture. (The other part of what makes it interesting, of course, is the immediacy of this kind of imagery for today’s fitness-obsessed society of largely unfit people.)

It is the training metaphor, therefore, that renders translations of verse 27 like RSV “I pommel my body” or NIV “I beat my body” and Nathan’s own “I black my eyes” so dubious. It’s indisputable that ὑπωπιάζω [hupopiazo] does mean “give someone a black eye” but the phrase makes little sense if it is taken literally. No-one in training injures themselves on purpose. …

Doug then offers his own rendering:

I put my body through a punishing training schedule.

The trouble with this, as I noted in a comment, is that there is nothing here to indicate that this is not to be taken literally. Doug’s wording suggests simply that Paul is saying that he visits the gym regularly. But surely that is not his point, especially in the light of 1 Timothy 4:8. I noted that

If Paul is putting his body through anything, it is not a literal exercise programme but abstinence from sin and from pleasures which might distract from the Lord’s work.

In response Doug asked me

whether anyone is in more danger of taking my English metaphors literally than they were 2000 years ago of taking Paul’s Greek metaphors literally.

In reply I wrote:

Good question, Doug. I would suggest that a more literal translation of Paul’s words, something like “I give my body a black eye and lead it in slavery”, could never be understood literally, but your “I put my body through a punishing training schedule” could. Perhaps to the original readers also this passage was so clearly non-literal that it could not be misunderstood as literal. Anyway I would presume that these words are not what would normally be used by someone going into training for the Isthmian Games: a boxer would certainly not punch himself! So I don’t think “I put my body through a punishing training schedule”, words which an athlete in training might actually say, is a very accurate translation.

My main point here is that we need to preserve the signals in the original text that language is not literal. Among those signals are that, in Doug’s words, “the phrase makes little sense if it is taken literally”. By tidying up the text so that it makes literal sense, Doug loses the signals of the metaphor, probably leading to misinterpretation.

But I do like the last part of Doug’s rendering of the verse:

so that I don’t become one of those who tell others what to do, but themselves collapse before the finishing line.

This reminds me of this interesting story, and picture, from the 1908 Olympics in London: a marathon runner who collapsed just before the finishing line and was helped across it – but later disqualified for receiving assistance.

Love takes a long thyme

There has been discussion on several blogs in the last day or so, not all of it entirely serious, about how to translate the first clause in 1 Corinthians 13:4. Those involved include Lingalinga, Mike and Suzanne, first here and now here.

I think I was the first in this discussion, in a comment on the Lingamish post, to point out the link between this clause and the description of the Lord in Exodus 34:6 (there I wrote in error 34:7) and several other places in the Old Testament as “slow to anger”. As I pointed out in one of my first blog posts ever, the Hebrew phrase used for this in Exodus literally means “length of nose” or “length of nostrils”; but the word meaning “nose” or “nostrils” also has the metaphorical sense “anger”, and understanding “length” in a temporal sense leads to the understanding “slow to anger”.

The link between 1 Corinthians 13:4 and Exodus 34:6 is with the Septuagint Greek wording of the latter, makrothumos. This adjective is a compound word of makros “long” and thumos, which has a variety of meanings, including “anger”. So the Septuagint translator clearly chose it, or coined it, as a loan-translation of the Hebrew phrase understood as “length of anger”.

In 1 Corinthians 13:4 the Greek of the first clause is he agape makrothumei, the last word being the verb derived from makrothumos. This verb and a related noun and adverb (although oddly not the adjective itself) are used several times in the New Testament. In modern translations these are usually rendered with the “patient” word group. The KJV translation of them was “long-suffering”, which is a good reflection of the Greek compound word if the “suffer” part is correctly understood in its older sense of “allow” or perhaps “forbear”. But this rendering obscures the significant link with the Exodus passage.

So how should we render the clause? Some advocates of formal equivalence translation argue that words should be rendered according to their most concrete literal sense. The most concrete literal sense of thumos is “thyme”, the herb whose English name is derived from this Greek word. So makrothumos should be “long thyme”. Hence the tongue in cheek rendering in this post title:

Love takes a long thyme.

Suzanne took this same approach even further by reading the Hebrew idiom into the Greek word. I’m not sure this is a legitimate approach, but then she was not being as serious as I first thought she was. What she came up with was

The scripture truth that “love is long in both nostrils at once”.

But this sounds a bit like the Pinocchio approach to Scripture: the more you misrepresent it, the longer your nose and so the greater your love!

But in her later post Suzanne looked more seriously at this passage, and came up with the best rendering I have seen, which preserves the link with Exodus 34:6 and fits well into 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is slow to anger.

May we all remember to live in this kind of love, including Doug who this evening rants at me (with good cause), and above all myself.

No harvest from imported vines

In my reading through Isaiah I came this morning to this passage, which I feel may be a message for the church in Britain (and maybe elsewhere) today:

You have forgotten God your Saviour;
you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress.
Therefore, though you set out the finest plants
and plant imported vines,
11 though on the day you set them out, you make them grow,
and on the morning when you plant them, you bring them to bud,
yet the harvest will be as nothing
in the day of disease and incurable pain.

Isaiah 17:10-11 (TNIV)

Here is my comment on these verses, taken from the comments on Isaiah which I have been posting at qaya thoughts:

Human attempts to import new ways of producing fruit will look promising but ultimately come to nothing.

If the church is to produce any real and lasting fruit, it needs to avoid relying on imported techniques, and to remember God himself and rely on the growth which he will bring.

qaya thoughts

I have just started a second blog, qaya thoughts (rhymes with “higher thoughts”), which is intended as an online journal, of thoughts arising mostly from my times of prayer and Bible reading. I will not be taking as much care there as I try to here at Gentle Wisdom to present these thoughts carefully, logically and consistently.

Many of my qaya thoughts will be notes from my Bible reading. I have started this blog to coincide with starting to read through the Old Testament prophetic books, beginning with Isaiah. Please note that what I am writing there is not intended to be proper exegesis of the original meaning of the passage; rather it is how I believe the Holy Spirit is wanting to apply the passage to myself and to the church and the world today. In seeing this modern application of Isaiah as primarily to the church I am by no means ruling out its applicability to Israel both in Isaiah’s day and today, nor to the first or second coming of Jesus.

These thoughts, especially those which are more like contemporary prophecy, have mostly not been tested by others. And so I can give no assurance to readers that they are genuine messages from God, and not from other places such as my own imagination. But I offer them in the hope that at least some of them will be helpful.

My longer term intention is to host qaya thoughts on the same server as this blog, Gentle Wisdom. But there are some technical issues to be sorted out first. So I am temporarily hosting it at wordpress.com. The URL will probably change in due course (see also the UPDATE below).

Note that I also blog from time to time at Better Bibles Blog and at TNIV Truth.

UPDATE 5th October: updated with new URL for qaya thoughts, see this announcement.

Adrian's principles for God bloggers

I am glad to see that Adrian Warnock is sufficiently recovered to post again, including giving a helpful reminder of an older posting on principles for God bloggers. I certainly aim to follow these principles in my own blogging, here and in comments elsewhere. If anyone thinks I am not following them or saying wrong things in other ways, please correct me gently, preferably by e-mail, peter AT qaya DOT org, or if you feel the need to in a comment here. Jesus said:

15 “If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. …”

Matthew 18:15-17 (TNIV©)

Today's Bible Passage: Acts 4:8-12

This was part of the reading at my church this morning. I also referred to this in the ongoing discussion on Adrian Warnock’s blog (I think it’s in about the 25th comment!)

8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is

” ‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the cornerstone.’

12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4:8-12 (TNIV©)