How not to abuse the Bible against Jews and homosexuals

I thank John Richardson for giving me, in a comment on my post on the new bishop of Chelmsford, a link to a fascinating paper “But the Bible says…”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1, by James Alison, a Roman Catholic scholar. I am all the more grateful to John because he sent this link even though he disagrees with the conclusions of the paper.

This paper was given in 2004 at Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, Baltimore, which was at least in its origin a community of nuns. So it was rather bold of a man to address these women about anal intercourse and lesbianism!

The part of the paper which I want to focus on here is this:

According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call “actualization” of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 Document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”:

“Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary… to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

The list which the Commission gives is deliberately not exhaustive, but it has the advantage of taking on vastly the most important of any possible improper actualization, which is that related to the translation of the words ‘οι ’Ιουδαιοι, especially where they are used in St John’s Gospel. I ask you to consider quite clearly what this instruction means. It means that anyone who translates the words ‘οι ’Ιουδαιοι literally as “the Jews” and interprets this to refer to the whole Jewish people, now or at any time in the past, is translating it and interpreting it less accurately, and certainly less in communion with the Church, than someone who translates it less literally as something like “the Jewish authorities”, or “the local authorities” who were of course, like almost everyone in St John’s Gospel, Jewish.

What does this teaching look like from an evangelical Protestant perspective? Of course “the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission” has no binding authority for non-Catholics. Nevertheless this passage is surely good teaching on how not to abuse the Bible by using it as a weapon against, for example, the Jewish people as a whole.

Also it is indeed exegetically correct to note that when biblical authors used the words hoi Ioudaioi they were referring in many cases not to the Jewish people as a whole but to the Jewish or Judean authorities who opposed Jesus and the apostles. It is therefore good translation to render this term, as for example TNIV does, as “the Jewish leaders”. But this TNIV rendering brought condemnation from Wayne Grudem, among others, on the grounds of “obscuring larger corporate responsibility” – does this mean that Grudem considers the Jewish people as a whole to be corporately responsible for the death of Jesus?

Alison notes that the passage he quoted uses the Jews only as an example, and so derives a broader principle from it:

given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a [Bible] text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.

And he then applies this principle to Romans 1. I appreciate the way that he has discarded the unhelpful chapter and verse divisions here (I have used them only so I don’t have to quote at length), and sees 1:18-32 as the build-up to 2:1. He understands 1:26-27 as a description of

the sort of things that went on in and around pagan temples throughout the Mediterranean world in Paul’s time.

Alison goes on to describe these disgusting practices in some detail. As he points out, up to this point

the [original] listeners will have been able to say “Right on, Brother!”

But the sting is in the tail, where Paul brings the argument home to his listeners, as in 1:29-31 he lists the kinds of non-sexual sins which they must have realised that they too were guilty of. Thus, according to Alison, Paul’s focus is not really on these pagan religious practices, but on the ordinary non-sexual sins of every ordinary person.

One clear direction of Alison’s argument, although he only hints at it, is that modern homosexuality and lesbianism is so different from the pagan orgies described by Paul that it should not be understood as being the same thing that the apostle speaks negatively about. But he gives more prominence to the argument that these orgies are mentioned only

as illustrations for an argument of this sort: “Yes, yes, we know that there are these people who do these silly things, but that is completely irrelevant besides the hugely significant fact that these are simply different symptoms of a profound distortion of desire which is identical in you as it is in them, and it is you who I am trying to get through to, so don’t judge them.”

In other words, Paul is not so much teaching that homosexual practise is wrong as teaching that his readers’ ordinary sins are just as wrong as they consider pagan orgies to be.

Now this is certainly not to say that the Bible approves of homosexual practice. There do seem to be much clearer, if briefer, condemnations of male homosexual intercourse in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11.

This argument also does not cover Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Joel Hoffman is correct to point out that these verses do not use the language of sin. But it is clear from them that God strongly disapproved of homosexual practice among the Israelites. The only question then is whether this, like blood sacrifices, circumcision and food laws, can be understood as a law for Israel which does not apply to Christians today – this  needs detailed study.

James Alison has made an important point. Most would agree that great care should be taken in using biblical texts about specific Jewish people against the Jews in general. Similarly, great care should be taken in using biblical texts about specific homosexual groups “in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity” against today’s LGBT community. I would still consider, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, that homosexual practice is wrong. But a proper reading of the Bible certainly does not justify the kind of condemnatory language against gays and lesbians used by many Christians.

Another Kirk blogging, with mixed results

UPDATE: I apologise to Daniel Kirk for writing as if the assertion David Ker attributed to him was what he had actually written. I have edited the post and marked the changes.

I have only just discovered Storied Theology, the fairly new blog of my American namesake Daniel Kirk, not related to me, who is a New Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. I first came across it when Doug linked to what Daniel wrote about Lent and the resurrection, which I commented on here.

Now I wasn’t at first very impressed by what Daniel wrote about theologically manipulated translations, also discussed especially as this was presented at Better Bibles Blog. Daniel doesn’t seem to In the BBB post David Ker makes it look as if Daniel doesn’t know his translation theory,  that there are many good reasons other than theological manipulation for a translation not being painfully literal. In fact from Daniel’s own post it is clear that he does know this. However Also, as I commented on BBB, Daniel doesn’t seem to have done his exegetical homework properly on the particular verse under discussion, and so hasn’t realised that a passive verb has a different meaning from an active one. So if renderings of this verse are not the same as KJV, that may just be because they are correcting an error in KJV.

But I like some of the other things Daniel writes. Just from the last day or so I can recommend Why Not Rather Be Wronged? and You Are What You Worship–Choose Your God Wisely. In the latter he outlines the results of secular research, which shows that

Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain … where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.”

So that is why religious fundamentalists, including Christian ones, so often come across as aggressive – and why that aggression is so often based on fear especially of less fundamentalist co-religionists. It is very sad when I see some of this same reaction from good conservative evangelical Christians, in their reactions to those who question their favourite doctrines or church practices.

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.

When "men" is a really bad translation: John 4:28 and 2 Timothy 2:2

I came across a few days ago an interesting example of where “men” is a really bad translation of Greek anthropos, in the plural. The leader of my home group Bible study on John 4, a lady who knows her Bible very well, was using NKJV. She commented on the way in which in verse 28 the Samaritan woman broke cultural norms by speaking to the men of the city. This was based on the text that she had in front of her:

The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, …

John 4:28 (NKJV, emphasis added)

Here “men” is a rendering of Greek anthropoi, the plural of the word anthropos which I have been discussing in previous posts.

Now I think that all Greek scholars and biblical exegetes would agree with me that anthropoi in this context should not be understood as referring to adult males only, but to all the people, at least all the adults, of the city. This is reflected in the rendering “people” in RSV, ESV and NIV as well as NRSV and TNIV. There is nothing at all to suggest that the woman has done anything unusual or improper in talking to the men only in the absence of women. But that is precisely the interpretation that my biblically literate home group leader put on the NKJV wording.

Some might defend the NKJV rendering in that it is almost identical to that of KJV. But NKJV editors, in their Preface, recognise that

our language, like all living languages, has undergone profound change since 1611.

As a result in places like Philippians 1:27 where the KJV rendering “conversation” is readily understandable by modern readers, but with quite the wrong meaning (clear but inaccurate), the NKJV revisers have made a change to “conduct”. The same principle should apply to the word “man”, which has also completely changed its meaning since 1611.

The first readers of KJV would not have understood “men” in John 4:28 as specifying males only. But the language has changed to the extent that today’s readers do – and draw quite the wrong conclusions. This is a place where anthropos certainly should not now be translated “man”.

But this is by no means the only such place. Another is 2 Timothy 2:2, where again the Greek word anthropoi is used, and rendered “men” this time in KJV, NKJV, RSV, ESV and NIV, but not NRSV and TNIV which have “people”. This verse, in the versions using “men”, will certainly be understood by readers today as implying that only males should teach others. But this seems to have been far from Paul’s mind in this letter, in which he apparently commends Timothy’s grandmother and mother for the way in which they have taught him scriptural truth (1:5, 3:14-15). So again translators should avoid “men” in this verse.

NIV profits go to Bible translation worldwide

Eddie Arthur, David Keen and Tim Chesterton, among others, have criticised the NIV 2011 update project in ways which I consider unfair. I commented on Eddie’s post and he replied in a further post which I was much happier with. But in view of Tim’s post the point I made needs wider publicity.

I entirely agree with Eddie, David and Tim that translation of the Bible into languages which do not yet have it is a top priority. This is the work that I gave 15 years of my life to.

But this is not the only issue in Bible translation. There are probably more speakers of English than of all the world’s Bibleless minority languages put together. These English speakers also need good translations, and sadly the ones they have so far are not completely satisfactory. There are various reasons for this, but not the least is that one of the most widely used of them, NIV, is 25 years old. I know that even within the world of minority language Bible translation a 25 year old version is often recognised as obsolescent and in need of revision. Why is a similar revision of an English translation so looked down on?

However, that is not my main point here. Rather, that relates to Tim‘s interesting suggestion:

Let all English language Bible publishers agree that they will collect a $1 translation tax on top of the price of every Bible sold. Let that money be collected and given to organisation such as the United Bible Societies and Wycliffe Bible Translators to be used to support translation projects in languages which have yet to see their first translation of the Scriptures.

But when Tim wrote this he was obviously not aware of what I wrote in a comment, although he has now acknowledged it in an update to his post:

This is indeed a great idea – such a great one that IBS/Biblica and Zondervan had it more than 30 years ago and have been collecting that “tax” for all that time on the 300 million copies of NIV they have sold. Yes, IBS has for many years been collecting significant royalties on every copy of NIV and TNIV, and using the bulk of this to support Bible translation into other languages. They have in the past given large amounts to Wycliffe/SIL to fund printing of minority language Scriptures. I don’t know the details of what they have done, but see for example this list of current translation projects, probably funded to a large extent from NIV and TNIV profits although of course they also welcome donations.

Biblica is not trying to hide what they are doing. This is from their Page Two magazine, Summer 2009:

Most of us would be at a loss to read the Bible in its original Aramaic and Greek languages. We take for granted our contemporary English translations. But many people throughout the world lack the privilege we have—to read God’s Word in their own language.

From the very beginning, this was a concern of the International Bible Society. In 1810, we gave $1,000—a huge sum at the time—to help fund William Carey’s translation of the Bible into India’s Bengali language. To date, we have printed and distributed Bibles in nearly 70 languages.

However, our best-known Bible translation is in English! In 1978, we completed the New International Version® (NIV) Bible. The contemporary-language Bible has become the most widely read and trusted translation in the world.

This year, we plan to launch four new translations, three in African languages and one in Hindi.

Then later, with some hyperbole (I for one trust TNIV far more!):

Today the NIV remains the world’s most-read and trusted contemporary English translation. Over the years, NIV royalty income enabled IBS to expand its Scripture distribution worldwide and has provided millions of people with free or highly subsidized Scriptures.

For better or for worse, money from sales of English Bibles provides highly significant funding for Bible translation into all kinds of other languages. When those sales fall, as they currently are for NIV, so does that income. When a new edition of an English translation boosts sales, there is more money for other translations. As Tim pointed out, if English speakers didn’t buy new Bibles, they “probably wouldn’t give the money saved to foreign language Bible translation projects anyway”. And if the biblical scholars on the CBT lost their jobs they probably wouldn’t be available or suitable for work overseas.

So let’s stop knocking this new initiative, and instead welcome the prospect of increased distribution of improved Bibles, not just in English but in languages from all over the world.

What will the updated NIV look like?

The world of watchers of English Bible translations was rocked yesterday by the news that the NIV Bible is to be updated in 2011. Straight away I reported on this, with little comment, in a post at Better Bibles Blog. Today, in the freedom of my own blog, I would like to make some reflections on this announcement.

In a comment on my BBB post I noted that

I now have confirmation from Zondervan that

Following the release of the 2011 NIV, we will cease to produce new 1984 NIV and TNIV products.

This certainly seems to go against the promise which IBS (now Biblica) allegedly made in 1997 that “it would in the future continue to publish the NIV of 1984 unchanged”. But there is not necessarily a contradiction here. This new announcement is from Zondervan, not from Biblica who publish their own editions of NIV. Also, Zondervan has not now promised to stop selling all existing editions of NIV and TNIV.

So does this mean the end of the road for TNIV as well as for the 1984 edition of NIV? TC Robinson seems to think so, as do some of the contributors to the discussion at This Lamp. I disagree. I expect the 2011 NIV to look very like the current TNIV, with at most a few minor concessions to those who have persistently condemned its gender related language. There will of course also be some small improvements of the kind one might expect when updating a translation a few years old. But I am expecting the new version to be much more like TNIV than the current NIV.

Why do I say that? An important issue here is the independence of the Committee on Bible Translation, which was reemphasised by Stan Gundry, Executive Vice President of Publishing and Editorial Operations at Zondervan, as recently as March this year in a post at BBB:

The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) is an independent body of OT and NT scholars …

By contract with IBS, the CBT controls the text of the NIV and the TNIV. This means that no one can revise, correct, update, or otherwise change these texts other than the CBT itself. …

The publishers must publish the text exactly as delivered by the CBT, including all footnotes, paragraph headings, etc. …

The CBT is jealous of its scholarly independence and it protects itself from pressure groups who have an agenda. …

Even though I work for Zondervan, a commercial publisher, I strongly believe that the model that exists between the CBT, IBS, and the commercial publishers is the best way to protect the integrity of any translation.

The way in which the announcement of the 2011 NIV update was made reassures me that this model, as described in such glowing terms less than six months ago, will continue to be the basis on which the CBT, Biblica and Zondervan (and presumably Hodder here in the UK) operate, the basis on which they will produce the updated NIV.

So the revised text of the NIV will be produced by the same CBT which produced the TNIV. Yes, there have been some recent changes to its membership, but the new members have probably strengthened the committee’s commitment to the translation principles behind TNIV, including its renderings of gender related language. So if the CBT is indeed independent of the publishers and “protects itself from pressure groups who have an agenda”, there is no reason for it to change the direction in which it has been going for more than a decade. That implies that in 2011 the updated NIV will look rather like the current TNIV, which will then be 6 years old, and much less like the 27 year old 1984 NIV.

So what of CBT chairman Douglas Moo’s words, as reported by USA Today?

I can’t predict what will happen with gender usage. My guess would be we made a lot of the right decisions for the T-NIV but every one of those is open for consideration. We may even be returning to what we had in the 1984 NIV.

It seems to me that with these final words Moo is trying to stop the updated NIV being condemned out of hand before it has even been completed. I’m sure it is genuinely true that every decision made in the past is “open for consideration”, and that, as Moo said in the main press release,

Every suggestion presented in writing to the CBT before the end of this calendar year will be considered for the 2011 edition of the NIV Bible

– even if suggestions from “pressure groups who have an agenda” will not be given any preferential attention. Nevertheless Moo clearly believes that CBT “made a lot of the right decisions for the T-NIV“, and probably the rest of the CBT agrees. So really what Moo is hinting at is that the update is unlikely to be “returning to what we had in the 1984 NIV” and much more likely to be a further step forward in the same direction as TNIV.

So what of the reaction of the “pressure groups who have an agenda”, specifically those who have consistently opposed TNIV because of its gender related language? Yesterday’s announcement is certainly not going to win them over to be friends of Biblica and Zondervan, or to endorse in advance the update. But they have been given no grounds on which to oppose it, as yet. Anyway the NIV consortium can hardly expect, whatever they do, to win back the support of critics many of whom are closely identified with a commercial rival translation, ESV. So I expect that behind the scenes Zondervan and Biblica have agreed to ride the inevitable storm, trusting that in the long term this will be for their commercial advantage as well as for the benefit of their readers.

I have a suggestion to make which may make their ride calmer – but they may already have something like this in mind. I suggest that Zondervan and its partners produce in 2010 a limited number of new editions of the 1984 NIV text branded (perhaps just on a new cover) something like “NIV Classic”. This will help to protect their sales during the inevitable slump before the update comes out. They will also be able to continue to sell these “classic” editions after 2011, in a low key way, to anyone who objects to the updated NIV. In this way they can also keep their promise not to change or withdraw the 1984 NIV.

However, I trust that from 2011 onwards Zondervan and Biblica will put their publishing and marketing efforts into the updated NIV, and that this will look rather like TNIV.

So I must disagree with those who see this announcement as the end of the road for TNIV. I see it as more like a prediction of its resurrection, in the new body of the updated NIV. On that basis I welcome the announcement of the NIV Bible 2011.

Banning the Bible in modern Hebrew

Iyov reproduces an article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz which reports that Israel’s Education Ministry has decided to ban versions of the Bible (presumably meaning only what we Christians call the Old Testament) in modern Hebrew. A government official has said:

The idea of translating the Bible into simple contemporary language is ‘scandalous’.

I’m not quite sure what the scope of the ban is to be, perhaps only on the use of these versions in state school classrooms – which needs to be put in the perspective that use of any kind of Bible in US state school classrooms is effectively banned.

Here I could get into questions of inappropriate intrusion of the state into religious matters, but then I realise that Israel is something of a special case in such matters. Instead I would like to look at the implications for translation.

John Hobbins has brought out these implications in his wonderful spoof on the article, in which he transculturares it to America. Of course this spoof doesn’t quite fit the American scene. But it does remind us of the real issue, that whereas for decades there have been good translations of the whole Bible into modern English, there are still national languages into which there is no easily understood translation, and that modern Hebrew is one of them.

Hebrew as spoken in Israel today is not the same language as the Hebrew of the Bible. There is probably at least as much difference between biblical and modern Hebrew as between the English of Shakespeare and that of today. (Iyov and John Hobbins, would you agree?) There are many obscurities in the text which even scholars don’t understand with any certainty, which means that ordinary Israelis don’t have a chance. And even when they think they understand the original text, they can completely misunderstand it if they read it as if it was in their contemporary language.

For example, a few years ago I got into discussion on an Internet forum with a scholarly modern Hebrew reader who insisted that God’s words in Exodus 3:14 mean “I will be what I will be”. And indeed that is what ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh means in modern Hebrew, in which the verb ‘ehyeh is in the future tense. But God was not speaking modern Hebrew, he was speaking (or at least his words were recorded in) an ancient form in which this verb form is timeless and continuous, best translated “I am” on the understanding that that also means “I always have been and always will be”. The educated person I was discussing this with thought she understood the Hebrew Bible, but she didn’t.

So, despite Keith’s comment, there is no fundamental distinction between the situation in Hebrew and in English. Just as today’s English readers don’t understand the King James Version and so there is a need for the good translations which exist into modern English (I don’t want to get sidetracked here into which of them is best), in the same way modern Hebrew readers don’t understand the original Hebrew Bible and so there is a need for a good translation into modern Hebrew. I don’t know if the versions which are now being banned are in fact good translations, but I hope that they are and that the current controversy serves to increase rather than reduce their circulation.

In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a similar controversy over translation of the New Testament into modern Greek. (Sadly the only reference to this which I can find with Google is from a Jehovah’s Witnesses site.) In 1901 there was rioting in Athens about this, but by 1924 the need for a modern translation was recognised even by the religious authorities. I hope that similarly over time the people, government and religious leaders of Israel will come to recognise the need for a modern Hebrew Bible, and that as a result the word of God will be much more widely read in the land where it was written down.

Blessing the Lord

Roger Mugs writes a good post about the importance of blessing the Lord, based on Psalm 102:1-2. He concludes:

… the East is a LONG ways from the West. There is nothing about the East that is ANYTHING like the West.

Our God removed our sins that far from us. So next time before a meal instead of “Good food, good meat, good God lets eat,” try a “God we bless you for your steadfast love, for your provision for this meal, for your great love for us, for dying on the cross for us. Bless you God!”

But what does it mean to bless the Lord? Clearly not what “bless” meant to the author of Hebrews 7:7. This was a real problem in the project I worked on, for translation of the Bible into a language without a long tradition of Christian terminology. There is a word meaning “pronounce a blessing”, but we could not use that of a lesser blessing a greater. There is one meaning “give abundantly to”, but that did not fit either. We could just say “praise”, like some modern English translations, but we wanted to avoid too much repetition and anyway this word does not fit everywhere.

Eventually we used in most places a word which is usually translated “applaud”, not necessarily in the sense of clapping hands, but would also include shouts like “Bravo!” But even that doesn’t really work in the case of blessing God for a meal.

And things became even more complicated in the case of blessing the bread, fish and wine at the feedings of the 5,000 and 4,000 and at the Last Supper. In these places the gospel writers made a careful distinction between two Greek words, one usually translated “give thanks” and the other “bless”. Now “give thanks” is clearly directed at God. In the context “bless” is probably to be understood in the same sense. Thus in Matthew 14:19 “he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves” (RSV) the implied object of “blessed” is probably God rather than the loaves, especially because Jewish prayers of thanksgiving for meals always start something like “Blessed are you, Lord our God …” (I note that in Mark 8:7 and Luke 9:16 a literal translation is “he blessed them”, i.e. the fish or loaves are the grammatical object, but this too can be understood as “he blessed God for them”; similarly also in 1 Corinthians 10:16.) So there is no concept here of blessing being associated with a material object. (Indeed Deuteronomy 28:4,5,8 are just about the only cases in the Bible of this kind of association, and caused a different translation problem.) In fact in our translation we could not use the regular “bless” or “applaud” words and had to render “he said the prayer of thanks”. I note that TNIV simply uses “give thanks” for both the Greek words, used almost synonymously.

By the way, we used a quite different word in cases like Matthew 5:3-11 and Psalm 1:1, representing different Greek and Hebrew words.

The lesson I take from this is that we need to unpack the meaning of a word like “bless”, which is quite different in different contexts, even if the same Hebrew and Greek words are used. We have to do this and then restate the concept in appropriate words if we want to communicate such things to people whose regular language is as far from Christian jargon as the East is from the West – which means plenty of people in the West as well as the majority in the East.

Yes, Roger is right, we need to bless God, applaud him, give him thanks for all the great things he has done for us. And as Jews as well as many Christians have understood, one of the best times to do this than before a meal.