Showing posts with label #Study. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Study. Show all posts

12 June 2023

What, you thought there were only 10 commandments?

Most Christians are familiar with the fact there are 10 commandments. Not so familiar with the actual 10 commands, Ex 20.1-17, Dt 5.6-21 but we do tend to know there are 10 of them, and it wouldn’t hurt to live by them. In fact the Christian nationalists among us think it’d be a good idea for the whole of the United States to live by them… although it’s a bit of a puzzler how we might simultaneously enforce “You’ll have no other gods before me” Ex 20.3 and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Amendment 1

Some of us have also heard the idea there are 12 commandments. Where’d the extra two come from? Well, someone once asked Jesus his opinion on the greatest command.

Mark 12.28-31 CSB
28 One of the scribes approached. When he heard them debating and saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which command is the most important of all?”
29 Jesus answered, “The most important is Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Dt 6.4 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Dt 6.4-5, Js 22.5 31 The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself. Lv 19.18 There is no other command greater than these.”

Since these two commands aren’t among the 10, certain Christians tack ’em on at the end.

But there’s far from just 12 commands. There’s 613.

Technically there are even more than 613. But when you combine redundant commands—namely all the commands repeated in Deuteronomy, like the 10 commandments Dt 5.1-21 —you get 613 of them. Or at least that was the conclusion of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon of Spain (1135-1204, also called Maimonides by westerners, Rambam by Jews). Moshe listed them in his book Sefer Hamitzvot/“Book of Good Deeds.” He had slightly different priorities than Jesus, which is why he put loving God at 3 and 4 in his list, and loving neighbors at 13.

These commands are mostly for everyone. There are many Levite- and priest-specific commands, which don’t apply to the general population. (Although Pharisees customarily practiced ’em anyway, figuring all Jews oughta be as ritually clean as priests.) There are also many gender-specific commands, which apply to men and not women, or women and not men.

And let’s be honest: There is a double standard in the Law. Women and men may be equal in Christ, Ga 3.28 but not under Law. Fr’instance there’s a test for a wife’s faithfulness, Nu 5.11-30 but no such thing for husbands. ’Cause patriarchy. Under that system, men could have sex with any woman in their household. The Law abolished many of patriarchy’s customs—no they couldn’t have sex with just anyone they wished. But though abolishing patriarchy was God’s ultimate goal, with only monogamous people in leadership, 1Ti 3.2, 12 with men loving their wives like Christ loves his church, Ep 5.25 he didn’t do this outright in his Law. Though certainly the test of a wife’s faithfulness under the Law was considerably better than the previous patriarchal custom… which was to kill her without a trial. Ge 38.24

26 September 2022

Get into a bible study.

BIBLE STUDY 'baɪ.bəl 'stə.di noun. One’s individual reading and research of the scriptures.
2. Short for “bible study group”: A gathering of people who meet to discuss the scriptures, or Christian topics, together.

Hopefully you read your bible on a regular basis; hopefully all the way through from time to time. (You can do it in a month y’know.)

And if you want to understand certain parts of it better, I would also hope you get hold of some bible handbooks, bible commentaries, or bible dictionaries—resources which help explain some of the historical and cultural background. ’Cause too many Christians forget we, and the folks in the bible, have very different worldviews. Even if you think you have a “biblical worldview,” you still really don’t think like a first-century Judean under Roman occupation, a seventh-century-BC Jerusalemite with the threat of the neo-Babylonian Empire coming for you, a tenth-century-BC Israelite who only just found himself living in a monarchy, a 14th-century-BC Hebrew slave newly freed from captivty, or a 19th-century-BC Sumerian nomad surrounded by pagans.

So get those reference materials, and get to learning. Don’t be intimidated; they write ’em for average Christians who lack seminary degrees.

But here’s the only catch with studying the bible on our own: How do we know we’re doing it correctly?

How do we know we haven’t picked up some poorly-researched book by some crank, and instead of learning solid stuff, we’re learning weird heresy? How do we know our conclusions are accurate, and whether the Holy Spirit really is guiding us through our studies?

Simplest answer: You confirm what you’re studying through fellow Christians who also studied this stuff, or who are also currently studying it. Yeah, you could all be individually studying it at home, and come together and compare notes… or you could study it together under some teacher who already knows a bit about it.

Christians generally call these get-togethers bible studies. But I should tell ya: All my life I’ve encountered “bible studies” in which the bible is not the primary book everyone’s reading. They’re doing a study on some other book. Some bible-adjacent book. Like a commentary, or a book about important people in the bible, or a book about certain biblical principles, or prayer books. Properly those are book clubs, not bible studies… but we still call ’em bible studies. Bible’s gonna come up pretty frequently, y’see.

And in these groups we can ask questions, confirm our interpretations, and learn a few things. After all, if we’re all listening to the same Holy Spirit, our interpretations should have some consensus to them… depending on what the Spirit wants to emphasize to each individual, of course.

It’s why I always recommend we plug into one bible study or another. Go interact with some fellow Christians, let iron sharpen iron, and get to know God better.

15 September 2022

Mistakes we might make in our word studies.

Yesterday I posted a piece about how to do a word study, and in it I largely emphasize how not to go to the dictionary first. ’Cause that’s how you do a word study wrong. Instead of drawing from the bible how its authors define a word, y’wind up overlaying the dictionary definition on top of the bible—whether it fits or not. (Or to use scholars’ words for it, y’wind up doing eisegesis instead of exegesis.)

When people overlay a definition upon the bible, they rarely looking at the context of the passage. (Yep, I’m gonna harp about context again. It’s important here too.) The few who do bother to look at context, often try to bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate the context as well till it fits their new definition.

Fr’instance. Years ago a fellow teacher was trying to teach his kids about planning for the future, for “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Pr 29.18 KJV Except he couldn’t find that verse in his NIV, because they translate חָזוֹן/khazón as “revelation.” See, khazón means revelatory vision, i.e. not just any vision, but something we get from God. Not our hopes and wishes for the future, but his. That’s why the second part of the verse—the part everybody forgets to quote—is “But he that keepeth the Law, happy is he.” Pr 29.18 KJV Context explains what “vision” means.

But my fellow teacher didn’t give a sloppy crap about what “vision” actually means. He just wanted to correct his kids who had no goals, and wanted to use the bible to help him smack ’em on the head. So he taught what he pleased. Context shmontext.

The same thing happens whenever Christians fixate on the dictionary in our word studies. We start with a word or concept we like; one which we already sorta know the definition of. We find a dictionary which gives us the definition we like. We dig out a bunch of verses and paste that definition over them, then try to interpret the scriptures by them, then marvel at all the new “revelation” we’re getting.

Hey, if Christians take the bible out of context in our regular, day-to-day bible reading, better than average chance we’re gonna take it out of context in our word studies. Such people don’t think context is important, and don’t care. But if we’re planning to live our lives based on these bible verses, context is always important. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor,” he proceeded to spell out in detail just who our neighbors are, lest we found a Webster’s Dictionary which suggests a neighbor is only someone we like. Lk 10.25-37 Such dictionaries aren’t all that hard to find. There are already plenty of mistakes in our minds; how many more will come out when we skip context?

14 September 2022

How to do a proper word study.

WORD STUDY 'wərd stə.di noun. Learning the scriptures’ definition of a word through its use in the text.

In the churches where I grew up, when people talked about “doing bible study,” they really meant doing a word study. They weren’t actually studying the bible—by which I mean read a story or section of the scriptures, look at its literary and historical context, analyze the original language, determine what it meant to the people who originally wrote and read it, and determine how this info is relevant to us today. Much as you’d study any work of history or literature—but somehow the definition of “study” got changed in church into looking up all the instances of a word in the bible.

Well you are using a bible, and you are studying.

But properly they were doing a word study: They chose an individual, significant word, found in the bible. Like grace. Or gossip, redemption, repentance, longsuffering and any of the other fruits of the Spirit; any words which have a particular importance to Christians. They’d try to dig out that meaning and understand the word better.

And that’s good! We should understand those words better. You’d be surprised (or annoyed) at how many Christians don’t know the definitions of words we use all the time. I already told the story of a pastor who didn’t know what a soul is. He’s hardly the only Christian who should know better, doesn’t, and has resorted to guessing. A little word study would help such people.

Problem is, few Christians are taught how to properly study a word. They do it like so:

  1. Look up the word in the dictionary. (If they feel adventurous, they might look it up in a Hebrew or Greek dictionary, like the ones in back of a concordance. But usually they’ll just go with a Webster’s.)
  2. Use a concordance, or a computer bible, to get a list of every verse in the bible with that word in it.
  3. Read a few of the verses with that word in it, so they know “what the bible says” about that word.
  4. Assume these verses are using the very same definition they read in the dictionary. Regardless of whether it does or doesn’t. Read that definition into every verse. Get some “insights” as a result.
  5. Feel all knowledgeable, profound, and spiritual.

Outside of Christendom, only schoolchildren will claim they “studied” when all they really did was look up a word in the dictionary. Come on, Christians. Let’s do some actual study, shall we?

20 October 2021


The word literally has two definitions. And they contradict one another.

Literally 'lɪd.ər.ə or ˈlɪt.rə adjective. In a most basic and exact sense, without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion.
2. Used for emphasis or strong feeling, though not precisely true.

I know; plenty of people insist the second definition isn’t the proper definition, and anyone who uses the word this way is wrong. Problem is, words are not absolutes. I know; plenty of people wish they were, and insist they are. (It’s why people still buy the original edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary instead of something up-to-date, with current definitions.)

Words aren’t defined by historical precedent, like laws, treaties, or biblical doctrines. They’re defined, and regularly redefined, by popular use. By popular vote, so to speak. Once enough people use a word “wrong,” the wrong definition becomes a second definition. Case in point: Our word “awful.” Used to mean “full of awe.” Doesn’t anymore; it means terrible. Once the new definition is used far more often than the original definition—and sometimes exclusively; nobody uses the original definition anymore!—the new definition becomes the main definition, and the original definition becomes wrong. “God makes me feel awful,” unless you’re trying to say he struck you with the plague, is wrong.

Yep, this is why we need to keep re-translating the bible. And why, whenever we read the King James Version, we can’t assume it’s using the same definitions for its words that we are. ’Cause too often, and when we least expect it, it’s not.

Anyway. The reason I bring up the evolution of language, is because plenty of Christians insist they interpret the bible “literally.” By which they think they mean the first definition: In its most basic sense.

In reality they mean the second definition: They interpret it seriously. They take it seriously. The bible is full metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, and distortion, and they know this. They’re not such fools as to ignore the bible’s different genres, and insist no, we gotta take metaphorical genres (like, say, the visions in Revelation) as if that’s precisely what has to happen. Well, most of ’em aren’t such fools.

You know there are parts of the bible we don’t interpret literally. Like poetry. Similes. Apocalyptic visions. Prophetic visions. Parables. Teachings where Jesus says, “I’m the good shepherd,” Jn 10.11 and no he doesn’t mean when the students aren’t watching, he runs out to the fields near town and herds sheep. Nor is he literally a sheep gate, Jn 10.7 light, Jn 9.1 bread, Jn 6.35 resurrection, Jn 11.25 nor a grapevine. Jn 15.1 We should know better than to figure Jesus is literally various inanimate objects, plants, or a man with alternate vocations.

And yet… about a billion Christians think Jesus actually transforms the molecules of his body into communion bread and wine every time they gather for worship.

Yeah, literalism regularly comes up in Christianity. So let’s sort out the definition, recognize whether we’re meant to take something literally or seriously, and either way stick to a serious understanding of what the scriptures mean—and how we’re to follow them. Okay?

23 June 2021

Searching the bible with Siri. Or Google.

You know how it goes: Half a verse pops into your head, and you think to yourself, “What’s the whole verse? Where’s that located? What’s its context?” (Or at least you should be asking yourself about its context.)

So what I usually do is whip out my iPhone, activate Siri, and quote my half a verse to her. Presto, she finds it. Usually on Bible Gateway, with a link I can press to go right to it. Takes all of 15 seconds.

Don’t tell me the olden days were better. They bloody well were not. If you had half a verse in your head and wanted to know where it was in the bible, you had to get out a concordance. If you don’t know what that is, God has been kind to you: It’s a big ol’ book, about five times bigger than a bible, which has every word in a bible translation listed in alphabetical order. Well almost every word; they skipped the far too common words, like and or the or in. But underneath every other word, they list every single occurrence of that word in that translation.

Fr’instance the word “wet” appears five times in the New Living Translation:

  • Exodus 16.13: “…the camp was wet with dew.”
  • Leviticus 11.38: “But if the seed is wet…”
  • Judges 6.37: “If the fleece is wet with dew…”
  • Judges 6.39: “…the ground around it is wet with dew.”
  • Job 16.13: “The ground is wet with my blood.”

Not that stuff doesn’t get wet in the New Testament—people get baptized, remember?—but the translators didn’t use “wet” to describe any of it. “Soaked,” yes. Not “wet.”

Anyway, back in the olden days this is what I had to do when I wanted to find a verse. I had to be home, ’cause that’s where my concordances were, ’cause nobody was yet able to carry books around on their phone. I had to make sure I remembered the verse in the proper translation: My churches had me memorize ’em in the King James Version until I was about 12 or so, and then everything sorta shifted to the New International Version. (Probably ’cause the last anti-NIV holdouts in the denomination had died. Hey, sometimes that’s what it takes for positive change to happen.) So if I couldn’t find it in my KJV concordance, I had an NIV concordance. And if I couldn’t find it in that either… well, it’s probably because I had memorized the verse in the 1978 edition of the NIV, but my concordance was published in 1990 and used the 1983 edition. I didn’t yet know present-day translations get occasional updates. Most people still don’t.

If this all seems like a headache to you, it is. Now imagine life before concordances.

Although sometimes, if you were lucky enough to have one of these people in your community, there’d be a person with an eidetic memory who’d read the bible and could quote most if not all of it. And could tell you the chapter and verse of anything you quoted to them. It’s like having a human Siri. I once met a woman who could do that; it was neat. You could have her recall verse address after verse address all day, for fun, and she found it fun too.

15 December 2020

Strong numbers. Or Strong’s numbers. Whichever.

From time to time I refer to Strong numbers or Strong’s numbers. I suppose I need to explain ’em before people get the idea I’m introducing them to numerology.

A concordance is a list of every single word in a book. People make ’em for the bible so they can use it as kind of an index: You might remember there’s a verse in the bible about “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but not remember where it’s found. (And you might live in 1987, when you couldn’t just Google it.) So you bust out that concordance, flip to “meek,” and find out where it’s hiding. Seems it appears 17 times in the King James Version.

Nu 12.3 the man Moses was very m., above all the men H 6035
Ps 22.26 The m. shall eat and be satisfied H 6035
Ps 25.9 The m. shall he guide in judgment H 6035
Ps 25.9 and the m. shall he teach his way. H 6035
Ps 37.11 But the m. shall inherit the earth H 6035
Ps 76.9 to save all the m. of the earth. H 6035
Ps 147.6 The LORD lifteth up the m. H 6035
Ps 149.4 he will beautify the m. with salvation H 6035
Is 11.4 reprove with equity for the m. of the earth H 6035
Is 29.19 The m. also shall increase their joy H 6035
Is 61.1 to preach good tidings unto the m. H 6035
Am 2.7 and turn aside the way of the m. H 6035
Zp 2.3 Seek ye the LORD, all ye m. of the earth H 6035
Mt 5.5 Blessed are the m.: for they shall inherit G 4239
Mt 11.29 for I am m. and lowly in heart G 4235
Mt 21.5 Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, m. G 4239
1Pe 3.4 even the ornament of a m. and quiet spirit G 4239

So check it out: The meek inheriting the earth comes up twice, actually. In Psalm 37.11, and in Christ Jesus’s “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Mt 5.5

Some bibles have a mini-concordance in the back, to be used as just this sort of index. They don’t include every word. Really, not even an exhaustive concordance does: There are 64,040 instances of “the” in the KJV. (More instances of “the” than there are verses.) When people are trying to track down a verse, they don’t use “the.” Too common.

Anyway. Dr. James Strong wasn’t the first guy to produce an exhaustive concordance of the KJV, but his was powerfully useful for one reason: His numbers. When you looked up any word in his 1890 concordance, you’d find he provided a number. In the back of the book were his Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, and Greek Dictionary of the New Testament. Don’t even have to know the Hebrew or Greek alphabets: You look up the word by its number, and there you go: It’s the proper original-language word behind the KJV’s translation.

Wanna know the original word for “ass” in 2 Peter 2.16? Strong’s concordance will point you to number 5268, and once you look up that number in the Greek dictionary, you find this:

5268. ὑποζύγιον hupozugion, hoop-od-zoog'-ee-on; neuter of a compound of 5259 and 2218; an animal under the yoke (draught-beast), i.e. (specially), a donkey: ass.

Nice, huh? Wanna know the original word for “buttocks” in Isaiah 20.4?

8357. שֵׁתָה shethah, shay-thaw'; from 7896; the seat (of the person):—buttock.

Yes, I’m twelve.

06 August 2020

Misadventures with the dictionary.

When I wrote about how to do a word study, I pointed out gotta use the dictionary last, for confirmation. Not first, as people tend to do.

’Cause several mistakes in interpretation are precisely the result of reading the dictionary first. When we were kids, most of us were taught if you wanna know what a word means, look it up in the dictionary! So we came to think of the dictionary as a primary source of information. But when we’re doing word study, the dictionary’s not primary. The bible is.

And for that matter, when a dictionary’s editors put it together, they did word studies. They don’t look up their words in a different dictionary. (The first guys to make dictionaries didn’t have dictionaries to go to.) They looked at literature. How’d previous writers use these words? How did John Milton, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, or John Wycliffe use the words? For an American English dictionary, they particularly look at how American writers use these words, ’cause we’re gonna use ’em differently than a British, Indian, Australian, Canadian, or Irish writer would. They look at the general consensus of the population, then put that into their dictionary.

So… what if they deduced the consensus wrong? Or what if you, as the reader, misunderstand what they did, or are trying to do, with their dictionary? Either way, you get errors.

When we go to the dictionary first, we wind up with the following problems. Instead of studying our word, we study…

The translation of the word.

This’d be those folks whose word studies never involve an original-language dictionary. When they look up peace, they never look up the Hebrew שָׁלֹם/šalóm or Greek εἰρήνη/eiríni; they’re using a Webster’s Dictionary, which has no foreign-language words in it. They look at what our culture means by peace. Not what the writers of the bible meant by it.

If your word study never involves the original languages, you’re doing it wrong. Period.

A variation of this is when people do look up the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek words… then read our current English words into them. I wrote on when people find out the Greek word for “power” is δύναμις/dýnamis, then claim God’s power is an explosive power, ’cause they connected the dots between dýnamis and dynamite. But if you’ve ever truly experienced God’s power, you know it’s not a flash in the pan; it’s a continual source of unending strength. But that “dynamite” interpretation still gets around. ’Cause it’s a flash in the pan.

The word’s history.

Words evolve. The English and French word table comes from the Saxon word tabule, which in turn from the Latin word tabula. Historians, especially word historians, find it interesting to see how words moved from one language to another, and this is why dictionaries frequently include these word histories. But here’s the problem: Our English word table, same as in French, means a piece of furniture with a flat work surface. The Latin word tabula properly means a tablet: It’s a flat board which you write on. (Yep, we got tablet from it.) A table and a tabula aren’t the same thing. They’re similar; they’re both flat work surfaces. Still.

Now we understand this, ’cause we speak English and know what a table is. But when we don’t know ancient Hebrew or first-century Greek—and most of us don’t—when people come across the word-histories in our Hebrew or Greek dictionaries, they think these are insights.

Homer, who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, wrote in ancient Greek. So did the playwright Aristophanes and the philosopher Aristotle. Sometimes dictionaries will tell us what Homer meant when he used the word ἄγγελος/ángelos, ’cause it’s interesting. But what dictionaries won’t always remind us, is Homer wrote his poems 800 years before the New Testament. He wrote ’em before Isaiah was born.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales about 630 years ago. Ever tried to read Chaucer in the original middle English? You’ll immediately notice English has changed a lot in the past six centuries. Many of the words no longer mean what they did in Chaucer’s day. So… is ancient Greek any different? Nope.

Aristophanes wrote 400 years before the New Testament. (So, closer to Nehemiah’s time.) Aristotle wrote 350 years before. Both these guys wrote in a form of ancient Greek we call Ἀττικός/Attikós, or “Attic” (it really means “Athenian, ’cause these guys are of course from Athens). In contrast the New Testament was written in κοινός/kinós, or “common” ancient Greek—changed by three centuries of interaction with Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Asians, and Romans. Loanwords were added. Other words changed meaning and form. What it meant to Homer isn’t necessarily what it meant to John, Luke, Matthew, Paul, or Jesus.

Scholars are pretty sure Paul invented a few words. ’Cause we can’t find these words anywhere else in first-century Greek writings before Paul used ’em. Likewise Paul felt free to come up with his own definitions of certain common words: When he wrote on ἀγάπη/aghápi and defined love for the Corinthians, 1Co 13.4-8 he actually went against the popular Corinthian definition of love. For ancient Greeks, aghápi isn’t patient, kind, and selfless: It’s relentless, and stops at nothing till it gets what it pursues. Paul flipped its meaning over entirely—because he was thinking of the Old Testament concept of love, as defined by God’s faithful, merciful, kind חֶסֶד/khecéd.

Paul used aghápi different from everybody else in his culture. Bluntly, he used it wrong. And yet, for us Christians, it’s entirely right. Among us, his “wrong” definition became the right one. After Paul redefined aghápi, you’re never gonna hear a preacher talk about what it originally meant.

Not so true of other Greek words. Fr’instance the word ἁμαρτία/amartía, “sin.” It comes from ἁμαρτάνω/amartáno, “not hit [one’s target],” like when you’re throwing a spear and hit the charioteer instead of the archer. Homer used it to also describe moral failures, so over time it evolved into our concept of sin… but Christians keep insisting “sin” really means missing the mark. You likely know from personal experience: Many sinners aren’t even trying to hit the mark. Some trespassers stumble into the wrong space accidentally, but more of them deliberately ignore those boundaries ’cause they don’t care about ’em at all, and that’s more the nature of sin than trying and failing and “missing the mark.”

The word-roots.

Since I’ve already stumbled upon the issue of word-roots…

The Greek word for patience is μακροθυμία/makrothymía It’s a compound word (made up of two words, like “windbag” or “forklift”) from μακρός/makrós “long” and θυμός/thymós “anger.” But it doesn’t mean “long anger,” any more than blackmail refers to black chainmail or black envelopes. Splitting it apart doesn’t give you a better idea of what it means; it gives you the wrong idea. You’ll assume it means bitterness, not patience.

A more common mistake is the Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία/ekklisía, which literally means a council or congress. But it’s a compound of ἐκ/ek “from” and καλέω/kaléo “call.” Hence many a Christian claims the church consists of “a called-out people.” After all, Jesus calls his followers away from the evil and sin in the world, and calls us unto himself. It still doesn’t make this a proper definition of ekklisía: The ancient Greeks used it to describe groups. Politicians, philosophers, students, convicts, soldiers—any and every group. And the church is Jesus’s group.

Plenty of folks nonetheless go ga-ga for root words, and whenever you hear a preacher start talking about the root words, watch out. More than likely, they did a sloppy job of word study, and you’re about to hear “the real meaning of the word”—which really isn’t.

The other definitions.

You’ll notice dictionaries have multiple definitions of many words. Fr’instance the English word “house”:

  1. A building people live in.
  2. A family. (Usually a noble family.)
  3. A building where people gather for other activities, like a house of prayer or a steakhouse.
  4. A legislature.
  5. A style of dance music.

But it’s fair to say when people usually say “house,” they mean a building people live in. Definition #1.

And too often a preacher tries to discover something “profound” by using anything but definition #1. Definition #1 is the proper one, but it doesn’t make the lesson unique; doesn’t make people sit up and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anyone say that before; it really speaks to me.” So they go with definition #2, or #3, or whatever wows the listeners most.

I’ve heard many, many preachers do this. Whenever preachers try to translate the bible themselves, and their translations go way off the beaten path, watch out. It’s the wrong path, with the potential to lead us astray.

Years ago I heard a sermon where the preacher’s entire point hinged on whether οὶκος/íkos means “sphere of influence.” It actually means “house.” (Although you might be more familiar with it as Dannon/Danone’s brand of Greek-style yogurt.) The preacher pointed out how the first Christians met in one another’s houses, Ac 2.46 and since he interpreted íkos as “sphere of influence,” he was trying to get his listeners to consider how we affect our respective spheres of influence. Now, let’s be honest: Christians should think about how we affect the people around us. It’s not a bad idea. It is, however, a bad interpretation. It’s not what Luke meant in Acts 2. If you really wanna preach that idea, I’ll bet you can find better verses in the bible to back it up. You don’t have to twist Acts 2, and force it into the text.

For whenever we find ourselves shoehorning our meaning into the text, no matter how good our idea may be, we’re still dishonestly warping the scriptures. We’re trying to disguise our message as bible, in order to swipe a bit of the bible’s authority. We’re false teachers.

To be fair, preachers don’t always go with definition #2 or #3 or #4 because they’re trying to deceive. Most of the time, it’s because they’ve fallen into the temptation of novelty: They wanna preach something new! They know their audience will appreciate something they’ve never heard before. It’s boring to say the same thing all the time. They’re out of idea on how to say it in new ways. They wanna preach something truly new; our culture loves new things. And what better way to appease other people, and our own bored selves, than to come up with a novel interpretation of the bible?

But we’re not allowed to preach anything new. The gospel hasn’t changed since Jesus first proclaimed it. It’s not gonna change—and that’s kinda awesome, ’cause it’s such good news! There might be nuances about it we’ve missed, or never noticed. We might introduce it, or reintroduce it, in multiple ways, same as Jesus did with his parables. But we have no right to change it simply to shake things up. That’s how people stumble away from Jesus. That’s how cults get started. Don’t try to invent new teachings and new interpretations! Rediscover the right ones.

All the definitions.

Just as often, preachers try to make something profound out of the scriptures by going through every alternate definition in their dictionary.

Fr’instance the Hebrew word יָד/yad. It literally means “hand.” But Hebrew uses idioms, just like English, so a hand might instead refer to something strong and helpful. Like God’s hands. “The hand of God” is mighty and powerful. Being in his hands doesn’t mean he literally picked us up; either he’s helping us out… or he’s gonna give us a spanking. Context should tell you whether it’s good news or bad. Likewise Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, Ep 1.20 which means he wields God’s power, not that he’s literally next to God’s literal right hand; he is God y’know.

And yad also means five or six other things. Like one’s possession. One’s presence. One’s personal access. A sign. A support. A portion. A side. And yes, Isaiah actually used it as a euphemism for a penis. Is 57.8 (The KJV left it untranslated; the ESV went with “nakedness.”) How do we know which definition to use? Context. If “hand” best fits the verse, yad means hand. If “power” is better, go with that instead. If “portion” then portion. And so on.

Yet some folks will take, fr’instance, “Neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand,” Dt 32.39 KJV and claim, “So today I’m gonna speak about how

  1. Nobody can take God’s power away from us.
  2. Nobody can take God’s support away from us.
  3. Nobody can take God’s portion away from us.
  4. Nobody can take God’s presence away from us.
  5. Nobody can take God’s access away from us.”

And so on. I’d better stop before he gets to God’s penis.

But y’see what he did, and both Christians and Jews have done this sort of thing throughout history. If you need to preach a three-point sermon, look up a word with three possible definitions, and preach the dictionary. Some Christian writers are notorious for it. They compare it to a jeweler looking at a cut gem, and looking at every facet of the gem, and seeing something new in it every time. So that’s what they claim they were doing with the scriptures.

A much better comparison would be a kid looking at anything through a kaleidoscope. A kaleidoscope isn’t a tool; it’s a bit of harmless fun. It shows a bit of something, then reflects it a whole bunch of times and makes it look grander—and pretty, in a way. Does it reveal anything new, or truthful, or hidden? Nah. It’s a fun way to kill time.

That’s what rifling through every definition will do for a word study. You won’t learn anything new or deep. You’ll just feel like you have, because you spent time on it. In the end, only one of these definitions is valid, and matters. And I hope to goodness you remember which one that is, because it’s the only one you can count on. The rest is useless wordplay.

13 January 2020

How to study your bible.

When I was a kid, I went to a Fundamentalist church. Say what you will about these folks: They’re big on studying the bible. Not all of ’em know how to do it properly—and they definitely didn’t teach me how to do it. (Man alive was I over-dependent on the notes of my Scofield Reference Bible!) But I gotta give ’em credit for making a serious, earnest effort just the same. They really wanted to know what was in there, and rightly believed every Christian should.

Yet even while I was in that church, I discovered I knew way more about the bible than others. Not ’cause I’m a genius or anything, although I do have a really good memory. I knew more simply because I read the bible. I read the commentaries in the bible, plus everything about the bible I could get access to: I studied.

And most Christians honestly don’t. Most humans don’t. As soon as we get out of school—whether high school, university, or grad school—we figure we never, ever have to study again, and don’t. We quit. We’re done. We might make exceptions for something important, like our contractor’s license, but we’re done. Study the bible? Nah. We’ll leave that for experts; pastors can study the bible. When we wanna get something profound out of the scriptures, we only expect to get ’em one of three ways.

  1. Somebody else has to say it. Like a favorite preacher or author, whom we trust to say reliable things. (Trust based on what? Well, that’s another discussion.)
  2. It’s gotta be a clear, obvious statement in the bible. Something anyone could find, like a penny on the sidewalk.
  3. It’s a God-inspired idea which unexpectedly pops into our heads, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, as we’re reading the bible. Illumination, some call it.

But study? Go digging out truths from the text? Never gonna happen.

There’s a common but false assumption God’s kingdom, because it runs on grace, arrives by grace: We don’t have to make any effort. Just take the talent God gave us, bury it in a field, and it’ll grow like an acorn into a tree filled with shiny metal discs. Wisdom will just come to us naturally. After all, there’s no shortage of people posting pithy platitudes on Twitter.

Here’s the quandary: Which of these platitudes are true, and which of them are merely clever… but wrong?

’Cause I’ve heard loads of platitudes. So have you. I’ve been a Christian for more than four decades, and listened to sermons every Sunday morning, many Sunday and Saturday and Friday and Wednesday evenings, many mini-sermons by bible study leaders and prayer group leaders and college professors, many sermons in chapel at schools I’ve gone to or taught at, and of course sermons on the radio or podcasts. I have no idea how many Christian books I’ve read, both before and after seminary. Or how many posts on Christian blogs.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Most of it looks like good Christian advice. But it only looks good: Much is junk, is misinformed, is misleading, is foolhardy, is ignorant, is dark Christianity, is heresy, or is hypocrisy disguised under thick Christianese.

And some of it is pure Christianism: It’s pop psychology, godless politics, Mammon worship and social Darwinism, ulterior motives disguised as devout Christianity. It’s totally wrong—but sounds good. Sounds wise, familiar, benevolent… and totally appeals to our bratty inner child, so we repeat it.

How do we know the difference? Well, unless we have the supernatural gift of discernment (which in my experience, the Holy Spirit uses to point out false teachers, not bad theology), we gotta discern stuff the old-fashioned way: We gotta know our bibles. And not just superficially. We gotta study our bibles. We gotta buckle down and do our homework.

But we don’t wanna.

“But I’m not a bible scholar!”

Embracing ignorance is a childish thing to do… and you’ll notice there are a lot of childish people out there. Christians included.

And they’re gonna stay childish. When they refuse to study their bibles, they’re not gonna grow as Christians. They’re not gonna grow the Spirit’s fruit. They’re not gonna become spiritually mature. They’re content to be the least in the kingdom… ’cause hey, they made it into the kingdom! They assume maturity comes with age. Lemme tell you, it so doesn’t. I’ve met many who think Christian senior citizens should automatically become church elders. But some of these seniors have only been Christian a few years, so they know no better than anyone who’s only been Christian a few years. Others, after a lifetime of refusing to grow, have no kindness, no patience, no goodness: They’re old brats.

No, bible study isn’t how we grow the Spirit’s fruit. There are a lot of fruitless know-it-alls. I’ve been one. But one of the traits of a person who is growing the Spirit’s fruit, is they’re gonna want to know God better. And they realize how we get to know God better is by studying the bible he inspired. Study what his prophets and apostles wrote. Study what Christ Jesus taught. Study.

If we wanna grow in Christ, we can’t solely depend on other Christians’ interpretations. It’s just not good enough. It makes us dependent on them for our spiritual growth; not Christ. And when they’re wrong (and they will be; we all are), not only do we stay wrong: We’ll have no clue we’re wrong, for we’ve never learned to tell the difference. It’s why people stay in cults for decades.

Other Christians can, will, and should supplement our knowledge. But each of us needs to step away from the secondhand sources, and go firsthand. All of us have to become bible scholars.

No, it’s not just for pastors and academics. It’s for every Christian. Just like prophecy. If, in order to understand the bible better, we research its original text, the ancient history behind it, the Christian philosophies (there are more than one) about the bible, we count as bible scholars. Doesn’t matter if we’re paid to do it. Doesn’t matter what our day jobs are. (Does to academics, but only because they’re trying to keep their day jobs.)

Doesn’t matter whether you’ve gone to seminary either. I have, but many of my pastors haven’t. And didn’t have to: They do their homework. When they put together sermons, they use many of the same resources I do, and do just fine—better than the vast majority of preachers I’ve heard. A seminary degree definitely helps, but anybody can study the bible once they learn how.

Yes, you’re gonna need to start buying books. Yeah, you’re gonna have to dabble in biblical languages. (Relax; you don’t have to learn the whole language, although you do need to learn enough to know how to use the languae appropriately.) Thanks to the internet, you have access to way more bible study resources than has any generation in history. What used to cost scholars a fortune (and I know, ’cause it cost me a fortune before this stuff went online) anyone can call up on their phone, even in countries which heavily censor the internet. Study is far easier and faster than it’s ever been. Lack of resources and lack of time: No longer an excuse.

It’s not gonna make you popular with the willfully ignorant.

One of the negative side effects of democracy—the correct belief all people are politically equal—is the incorrect belief all people oughta be equal in everything. Like wealth and prosperity: Everyone oughta be equally rich or equally poor. Or like knowledge: If you know more than me, for some reason that’s wrong of you, and you need to be taken down a few notches. What, you think you‘re better than me? You ain’t better.

This is the attitude bible scholars constantly, regularly get from non-scholars. People figure anyone who knows more than they, by default, is a know-it-all. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul said once, 1Co 8.1 and they take it upon themselves to deflate such people. So expect backlash.

One of our duties as bible scholars, is to explain what the scriptures mean. Which I do. Either here on TXAB, or in one of my church’s small groups, or when people pick my brain one-on-one. And occasionally I butt heads with people who hate my interpretations. They grew up believing otherwise. They didn’t ask my opinion because they want to know something; they just want me to confirm what they already believe.

And when I challenge their beliefs, many go into fight-or-flight mode, and choose fight: They wanna debate. They wanna ruin me: Or ruin me: Get me publicly rebuked, get me fired, get me excommunicated; the only reason they don’t try to get me whacked is because they still think that’s a line you don’t cross. For now. The people who killed St. Stephen didn’t have any such line, and some people wonder if there should even be such a line.

Plenty of Christians claim they appreciate constructive correction. This is a lie. They absolutely hate it. They don’t wanna be wrong. (It’s human nature!) They’ve invested a lot of time and effort in their ideas, and don’t want it to be time wasted. If you don’t believe in miracles, and spent your whole life avoiding charismatics and our churches, it will blow your tiny little mind when God drops an honest-to-Him miracle upon you. You’d barely accept him—much less me.

So they won’t surrender their cherished false beliefs without a fight. Humility ain’t that common. And I blunder into such fights when I least expect it: I’ll state something which I figure is a very simple statement, and just my luck: Someone in the room believes just the opposite, decides she’s right and I’m Satan, and it’s time to do holy war. (Nope, I’m never given the benefit of the doubt: “He made a mistake somewhere.” People jump directly to “He has a demon.” Did it with Christ too, y’know. Jn 10.20) Doesn’t matter if I can point to bible verses: She’s believed this her entire unexamined life, loves this belief, never heard otherwise, and therefore I must be Satan.

Or it’ll blindside me this way: Somebody else will state something, figure I’m the token bible scholar in the room and turn to me for affirmation: “Isn’t that right?” Oh, I hope to God it is. I hate being put on the spot this way. ’Cause sometimes it’s not! And sometimes it’s really not the right time for correction. I once had a pastor single me out and ask “Isn’t that right?” in mid-sermon. He wasn’t. But in our congregation that day was a kid whom I was trying to lead to Jesus, and I didn’t want my pastor’s train of thought derailed by this minor error. So I mumbled something non-committal, corrected him privately later, and he’s the kind of guy who’s so humble he emailed everybody in the church and apologized for his minor mistake. My point though: Learn when to be right, and when to shut up and be right later.

Immature people always attack the messenger. So don’t be surprised when immature Christians do likewise: “I reject your ‘head-knowledge,’ because I’m speaking from ‘heart-knowledge,’ which is true knowledge.” No, that’s truthiness: Stuff you feel is true, and wish were true, but you have no facts and reason to back you up. Certainly no in-context bible verses. By “head-knowledge” these folks mean cold, hard, heartless facts. True, facts oughta be spoken in love and compassion. Ep 4.15 But without love, facts don’t become nothing: I do. 1Co 13.2 Facts are still facts—and truth isn’t in those people.

Christianity isn’t, and never has been, about what we wish were true. Wishful thinking ain’t faith. Christianity is actual truth God revealed through Christ Jesus: True whether we like it or not. As bible scholars, we gotta find it, regardless of what the wider Christian culture likes better, and recasts as truth. That’s why we study the bible: To find truth. The scriptures point to it. We wanna know it. God offers to give it. And a superficial reading of the bible only provides it superficially. You want deeper truth, you get deep.

It takes diligent study. It takes showing God we mean business. It means demonstrating to him we can handle his revelation. It means we study the historical context of the scriptures, study Greek and Hebrew were necessary, and no playing connect-the-dots like a conspiracy theorist, hoping to extract truths about the bible by treating meaningless coincidences like they’re profound revelation. They called this λογομαχέω/logomakhéo, “word-slicing,” back in bible times, and Paul brought it up to Timothy:

2 Timothy 2.14-19 KWL
14 Remind them of these things, objecting (before God) against overanalyzing words.
It profits no one; it’s a catastrophe for listeners.
15 Push yourself to stand before God as worthy:
A worker who doesn’t embarrass himself, who uses the word of truth properly.
16 Stay clear of unholy talk or foolishness,
for it’ll grow more ungodly behavior, 17 and their words will spread like rot on a field.
Yménaios and Fílitos are examples, 18 who went way off center about the truth,
saying the resurrection already happened, overturning certain people’s faith.
19 Still, God’s solid foundation stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows who’s his,” Nu 16.5
and “Get away from wrongness, everyone who names the Lord’s name.” Is 52.11

Steer clear of the temptation to embrace “new facts,” which are often just old heresies in new packaging. Stay away from angry teachers, scholars who are trying to get famous by being extra controversial, preachers who like to get into fights, anyone with iffy fruit. Look for teachers with good character. Read their stuff first.

Finally, how to study a bible.

It’s really not that hard. Here’s a general outline of the steps to take. This’ll get you started.

PICK YOUR BIBLE PASSAGE. If you wanna study an entire book, great. But unless we’re talking a really short book (and sometimes even then; some of John’s shorter letters are awfully deep) it’ll take time. Break it down into segments which are small, manageable, and reasonable. Study ’em one at a time.

Me, I prefer a paragraph at a time. (Meaning original-language paragraphs, not the way different bible translations put ’em into paragraphs. But relax: You don’t need to learn biblical languages. They really help, but they aren’t mandatory.)

Pick the bit you wanna study. Got it? Good.

RESEARCH ITS BACKGROUND. Before you study any book of the bible, or even just a passage of the book, you really oughta know about the whole book: Who wrote it? Why’d the author write it? What’s its point? Who’s it to? What’s it about? What type of literature is it?

When you read a Civil War novel, it really helps when you know a little about the Civil War. Helps more when you know more. Same with Victorian-era novels: Learn a bit about the Victorians. Same with autobiographies: When you read Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, you oughta know about the Roman Republic (and how it’s not the same as the Roman Empire). And same with the bible: Know enough bible history for your book to make sense.

Christians assume, because these books are translated into 21st-century English, we’re reading about people who speak our language and live in our culture. They didn’t. These books were written between 34 and 20 centuries ago, almost entirely in the Middle East, in foreign languages, to foreign cultures, who knew absolutely nothing about us and our way of life. We gotta learn about them.

So… what’s the historical background of the people in the book? How about the historical background of its readers? What’s their popular culture like? What sort of things might they know, or be expected to know?

Yeah, there’s a crazy amount of detail we can study in learning the background. It’s why bible scholars never figure our job is done: We keep learning about biblical history. Historians and archeologists are always discovering new stuff. We try to keep up.

But if you want a brief introduction to any book, get a decent bible commentary on that book. Read its introduction.

READ IT IN AS MANY TRANSLATIONS AS YOU CAN. Look at every way other scholars have rendered this passage into English.

Lots of people skip this step, and stick to their favorite bible translation. Or they think the solution is to get a translation which is as literal as possible, like the NASB or ESV; or stick with the Amplified Bible ’cause they figure it includes every possible translation option. (It doesn’t.) Or they embrace a crazy doctrine that their translation is the only one infallible. No no no. This is the 21st century: There are dozens of translations at your fingertips on the internet. Read as many as you can.

This is not a search for “the best translation.” Nor for a translation which best suits your idea. A lot of Christians make this mistake, and don’t realize what they’re doing is bending the scriptures to suit them. We do just the opposite: Bend ourselves to suit the scriptures.

What we’re doing is looking for the general consensus: In what ways do all the translators agree? What do all the translations have in common? Which ideas are exactly the same, in every version?

Some verses are ridiculously easy to translate. So every translation will agree. Other passages are controversial, so you’ll find half translate it one way, half another. Look at both options. Or there will be three or four or 20 options; compare all of them. Don’t forget the footnotes: Certain bibles include “Some translations have…” followed by another way it could read, and that’s another option to consider. Sometimes there are textual variants.

So… do these differences significantly change the meaning of the verses? Or are they just extra words?—like referring to Jesus as “Christ Jesus” instead of just “Christ” or “Jesus.” Most variants are really nothing more than that.

In doing this, you’re gonna get really familiar with your passage. Good. You need to. Meditate on it too, when you meditate.

You may find different translations split your passage into different sentences and paragraphs. Again, look at the consensus. (And maybe you’ll have to adjust where your passage starts and stops.)

Once you have a good idea of what most translators think the passage means, pick the translation which does the best job. If no single translation does the best job, go ahead and put it together yourself: Pick one sentence from the NIV, one from the NKJV, a clause from the ISV, a word from The Message. Yes, it’s okay to do this, but you need to be able to defend every clause you include: “Most translations use the word ‘propitiation,’ and so did I.” Not “I just liked that word way better.”

LOOK UP ANY SIGNIFICANT WORDS. And here’s where we bust out the Hebrew and Greek: If there’s a significant, theologically-loaded word in your passage, look it up in the original language.

No, don’t look it up in an English-language dictionary. When preachers tell you how the American Heritage Dictionary defines a word in their bible passages, they’re doing it wrong. God help you if they start quoting Webster’s. Which Websters? Any dictionary can call themselves Webster’s. The name isn’t copyrighted, y’know. But all an English dictionary does is say we mean by that word. Not what the bible’s authors meant by it. An original-language dictionary does the job. Again, bible software and bible websites will help you out.

When preachers tell you how Strong’s or Brown Driver Briggs or the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it, then we got a bible scholar. Assuming they’re not misusing the dictionary. The point isn’t to discover secret, unknown-before-now meanings to the bible. It’s so we understand this passage better with these words’ proper meanings.

NOTE HOW IT FITS WITH ITS BOOK. Another common mistake is people study a passage, then immediately interpret it for what it means to them, not for what the author was trying to say to their audience. They don’t care about the author. Nor the intended audience. They wanna get stuff out of it. (Sometimes stuff they can beat others over the head with.) It’s very selfish.

Where’s the verse fit within the big picture of its book? If it’s a gospel, how does the verse point to Jesus or his kingdom? If it’s one of the Prophets, how does it point to God? If it’s a New Testament letter, how does it teach the church to think and behave? If it’s a psalm, how’s it praise God? Those are general concepts: Each book will have its specific agenda, and you need to look at how each verse furthers that book’s agenda.

THEN LEARN FROM IT. Once you understand what your passage means, and what it said to its original audience, then you can look at what lessons you can take from it.

I’ll warn you now: After all the time you put into your study, you might expect to get something really profound out of it. And you usually will. But sometimes it’s really not all that deep. I know; people assume all scripture is weighty, and can inspire thousands of sermons. “God is love” 1Jn 4.8 sure can. But “Abraham lived between Kadesh and Shur” Ge 20.1 not so much.

(Well, yet. If you ever go to Israel, and you’re traveling between Kadesh and Shur, being face-to-face with the physical context of the scriptures might knock you flat. But this’ll only be true after you’ve studied your bible and have the verse in you. If you don’t, it won’t.)

And that’ll do ya.

If you want a more thorough outline on how to study the bible, one of the best books I’ve come across is Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, a thin little book which’ll show you, in detail, how to take apart a passage from the New Testament. The same principles apply to the Old Testament too. Lots of colleges use it for good reason. Mine didn’t, but my professors obviously read it, ’cause they taught all the same ideas.

And of course I’ll go into more detail in future articles. Stay tuned.

21 November 2019

Preaching the dictionary.

Nine years ago I visited a family member’s church. The pastor had just started a series about home-based small groups. His primary proof text came from Acts 2, namely the part where Luke described the brand-new Christians in Jerusalem, and how they got religious.

Acts 2.42-47 KWL
42 They were hewing close to the apostles’ teaching, to community, to breaking bread, and to prayers.
43 Reverence came to every soul, and many wonders and signs happened through the apostles.
44 Every believer looked out for one another, and put everything in common use:
45 They sold possessions and property, and divided proceeds among all,
just because some were needy.
46 Those who hewed close unanimously were in temple daily,
breaking bread at home, happily, generously, wholeheartedly sharing food,
47 praising God, showing grace to all people.
The Master added saved people to them daily.

He used the NLT, I believe. Its verse 46 goes like so:

Acts 2.46 NLT
They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

“They met in homes,” he pointed out. “The Greek word for ‘home’ is oikos.” (Yep, just like Dannon’s brand of Greek yogurt. See?—knowing Greek comes in handy. Although οἶκος is properly pronounced íkos.) “And according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, that means ‘a dwelling; by implication, a family.’ So what that verse really means is that they met as families.”

Um… no it doesn’t.

Íkos means house or home. It’s why the NLT rendered it as “homes.” It’s why most bibles render it that way. It’s what anybody who took Greek 101 understands it to mean; íkos is one of the first words we learn, appears in the Greek New Testament 112 times (114 in the Textus Receptus), and it’s a really easy concept. Hence bible translators aren’t being inexact when they render it “house” or “home.” They know what they’re doing. It’s why bible publishers, and bible translation committees, hire ’em.

If “They met as families” were a better translation, you’d see it translated that way in most bibles. If it was a valid alternate translation, you’d see it translated that way in at least one bible. But check out all the different English translations on Bible Gateway, and you’ll find not one translator decided, “Y’know, íkos really means ‘family,’ so let’s go with that.”

So why’d this pastor make this claim? ’Cause he wants the Christians of his church to meet together in one another’s homes, and be family together. Which is a great idea! It’s precisely what church is meant to be. It’s just he was trying to prove it by misusing a Greek dictionary, and wow his congregation by dropping on them a secret, cryptic meaning of íkos which they’d never heard before. Wow, “home” really means “family”!

And yeah, in certain contexts it can mean that. Like Joseph being of David’s house, Lk 1.27, 2.4 or when Paul told his Corinthian guard he and his “whole house” would be saved. Ac 16.31 In these instances it meant family. But all translation depends on context. If it didn’t—if every instance of íkos means family—then let’s talk about Solomon building the LORD a house, Ac 7.47 and do try to not sound ridiculous.

20 November 2019

Expository preaching… if that’s what’s even happening.

EXPOUND ɪk'spaʊnd verb. Present and explain (a theory or idea) systematically and in detail.
2. Explain the meaning of (a literary or doctrinal work).
[Exposition ɛk.spə'zɪʃ.(ə)n noun, expository ɪk'spɑ.zɪ.tɔ.ri adjective, expositor ɪk'spɑ.zə.dər noun.]

I regularly run into this situation: People like to compliment their favorite preachers by calling them “great expositors.” Apparently they’ve learned exposition is the very best way to preach, so when they like certain preachers, that’s what they call ’em.

And once again, this is one of those situations where I gotta quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride.


’Cause I listen to these preachers for myself, and find they’re not great expositors. Or even expositors.

Oh, they can preach. They have outstanding abilities as public speakers. They know how to keep their listeners’ attention. Some of ’em have even done their homework, and teach the scriptures admirably. But expositors? Nope.

They get called “expositors” because they’ll go verse-by-verse through a bible passage. They start with verse 1, and talk about it a bit. (Or a lot.) Then verse 2. Then verse 3. And so on. They’re a series of talks, each of ’em prefaced by a verse. Because the preacher does quote every single verse in a passage, people think this is what makes a sermon expository.

Nope. What makes it expository is they expound on the verses. They have to actually analyze and explain what every verse means. Preferably in detail. And their message has to be about explaining what it means.

Whereas most of these “expository” sermons are really just preachers quoting bible, then using the bible verses to riff about the topics they wanna talk about. Whether these topics have anything to do with the verses they just quoted. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not so much.

06 September 2019

Prophets in the bible: Read their books!

THE PROPHETS ðə 'prɑf.əts noun, plural. Biblical writings by and about God’s Spirit-inspired messengers.
2. [In Christian bibles and book order] Books in the Old Testament primarily consisting of prophecies. Usually Isaiah through Malachi.
3. [In Jewish bibles and book order] The second major grouping of the Hebrew scriptures: Books written between 1000 and 400BC; Joshua through Malachi.

Sometimes I refer to “the Prophets,” and I admit this can be confusing to Christians who grew up Jewish. To Jews, “the Prophets” are the middle part of their bible—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the 12 minor prophets.

But to Christians, “the Prophets” are the books with prophets’ names on them, specifically written by them, specifically full of their prophecies. Isaiah, Jeremiah (and Jeremiah’s book Lamentations), Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of us throw in the New Testament book of Revelation, and others throw in the apocryphal book of Baruch.

And for too many of these Christians, these are flyover books.

Yep. Just like snobs on the east and west coasts assume the middle of the United States consists of irrelevant “flyover states” which one needn’t bother to visit, many Christians figure these books needn’t be read. ’Cause they were written to the ancient Hebrews, not us. And they’re too confusing. Too filled with hard-to-interpret visions. Too weird. Not relevant.

They figure the Prophets have only two functions; only two reasons why we bother to publish bibles including them. First of all, they’re full of predictions Messiah was coming, so they point to Jesus. So we keep ’em for the Messianic prophecies, in case anybody isn’t sure the Prophets did foretell Jesus’s first coming.

The other is because they also foretell Jesus’s second coming. They foretell the End Times. So “prophecy scholars” mine ’em for their End Times prognostications, for anything which might fill in the blank parts of their timelines.

Otherwise, these books are considered a hard read. So Christians don’t read ’em. We read the books we consider relevant: The New Testament. The Old Testament origin stories, or tales of great biblical heroes. The psalms, for the poetry. Proverbs, for the wisdom. Song of Songs, for the smut.

But not the Prophets. Otherwise you’d have to learn about the historical context these prophets were talking about, and that’s way too much homework for your typical Christian’s taste. Plus they’re a bummer, ’cause they’re full of condemnation and God’s wrath. So, as I said, they’re skipped. Mine ’em for proof texts in case there’s a “biblical principle” you’re pushing. But otherwise skip ’em.

This attitude is incredibly short-sighted for those of us who wanna hear from God.

Because these prophets likewise heard God. You wanna know what God sounds like? Read the Prophets. You need to hear what God’s legitimate messengers sound like.

08 April 2019

Synoptic gospels: The three gospels which sync up.

SYNOPTICS sə'nɑp.tɪks plural noun. The synoptic gospels.
SYNOPTIC GOSPELS sə'nɑp.tɪk 'ɡɑs.pəls plural noun. The gospels which show a great deal of similarity in stories, wording, structure, order, viewpoint, and purpose. Namely Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

You’ll notice in my articles on Jesus’s teachings I often line up the different gospels in columns. ’Cause they’re telling the same story, but in slightly different ways. But even so, they sync up rather well. The phenomenon is pretty well described by the Greek word σύνοψις/synopsis, “see with [one another],” so three of the gospels get called synoptic.

John is an obvious exception. I can sync it up from time to time, but nowhere near as well. Its author was clearly telling his own stories.

There’s a rather obvious explanation for why the synoptics line up: Mark was written first. The authors of Matthew and Luke simply quoted Mark as they put together their own gospels. Sometimes they quoted Mark word-for-word; sometimes not. The author of Luke admitted other such sources existed—

Luke 1.1-4 KWL
1 Since many people have decided to arrange a narrative about the acts we accomplished,
2 just as they were given to us by the first eyewitnesses who served the Word,
3 it occurred to me to help write out everything accurately from the beginning to you, honorable Theófilus,
4 so you might know with certainty about the word you were taught.

—and it turns out he availed himself of those sources. Mark included.

But—no surprise—there are Christians who have a big problem with the idea the gospels’ authors quoted one another. Including some scholars.

Some are bugged by the idea of anybody quoting anybody. What they’d much rather believe is that each of the gospels’ authors wrote independently of one another… and all their stories happen to match. Miraculously. Which would definitely convince them the gospels are reliable… but nobody else. Y’see, talk to any police detective and they’ll tell you: When every witness’s story lines up too perfectly, they colluded. No question.

A more reasonable problem, which bugs a lot of Christians, is the idea of Matthew quoting Mark. Because the apostle Matthew was one of the Twelve, who personally followed Jesus and learned from him directly. Whereas the apostle Mark was a student of Paul, and later Peter… and therefore didn’t learn about Jesus firsthand like Matthew; he learned about Jesus secondhand from Peter, and thirdhand from Barnabas and Paul. All this stuff was confirmed by the Holy Spirit, but still: Why on earth would Matthew quote Mark? What could Mark possibly know that Matthew didn’t?

So these Christians’ theory goes like yea: ’Twasn’t Mark, but Matthew, who wrote his gospel first. (Maybe even in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and Matthew’s homeland, instead of Greek.) Then Mark later published an abridged Greek version of Matthew. And Luke later quoted Mark… or Matthew; whichever.

Meh; it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. But we’ve no proof there’s an Aramaic original of Matthew, and we don’t know why Mark would want to write a shorter gospel instead of including every Matthew story.

But the more important thing to remember is the names we attached to the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—were attached there by tradition. We don‘t actually know who wrote ’em. They’re anonymous. The apostles and prophets put their names on their books and letters, but the authors of the gospels felt Jesus is way more important than them, so they left their names off. Deliberately; the author of John called himself “the student Jesus loved,” and the only John in his gospel is John the baptist.

We think we know who wrote the gospels, and it’s entirely possible we got the right guys. There’s some hints in Luke/Acts that Luke’s the author, and many more hints in John that John bar Zebedee wrote it. But Mark actually has no such hints. Nor Matthew. Matthew might not have written Matthew. Or it was some other guy named Matthew who wrote it, who’s not the same Matthew in the Twelve.

05 October 2018

How does one answer a fool?

Proverbs 26.4-5.

Whenever someone claims the bible never, ever contradicts itself, I like to take ’em to this pair of proverbs.

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL
4 Don’t respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest you be compared to them.
5 Respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest they become wise in their own eyes.

Thing is, whenever I do this, the person immediately attempts to explain how they don’t contradict one another. Oh, they’ll do a terrible job of it. It’ll get ridiculous and illogical. But they do try.

Because at some point in their past, they heard the bible never contradicts itself. They liked the idea. So they made it a core belief: One of the things which defines their Christianity, which defines their trust in the bible, is this ground-floor idea it never contradicts itself. Shake that belief and now they gotta rethink their belief system from the ground up.

But there’s something in human nature where it’s just easier to go into full-on denial: “No it doesn’t contradict itself, and here’s why…” Instead of deal with the problem, they’d rather pretend it isn’t there.

Except it is. And it’s gonna bug them. And it’s either gonna unravel their Christianity, and even their trust in God; or it’s gonna kill their faith altogether, and they’re gonna pretend they trust God, but they no longer do.

Or, which is wisest, they’re gonna deal with the contradiction. ’Cause the editor of Proverbs put these two proverbs of Solomon right next to one another for a reason. And the reason is really simple: Depending on the circumstances, sometimes we follow verse 4, and sometimes verse 5.

Yep. The editor was trying to teach us situational ethics. Something a number of Christians insist isn’t a biblical idea; insist it’s even antithetical to the sort of absolute truth in the bible. Well, it’s not. And it’s probably a good idea to start doubting those absolutists, ’cause not everything they claim to be absolute, is. They’re way too quick to build their houses on sand.

13 June 2018

The interlinear bible.

INTERLINEAR BIBLE in.ter' 'bi.bel n. Bible which presents the same text in different languages printed on alternate lines.

First time I stumbled across an interlinear bible was back in high school. I was killing time in a Christian bookstore. (Remember those?) This one happened to have an interlinear Old Testament mixed in among the bibles. Never knew such a thing even existed, but I wanted it immediately: It had “the original Hebrew”—the Masoretic text of the scriptures, in a language I couldn’t read at all, ’cause I hadn’t even learned the alphabet yet. But its secrets were unlocked with a word-by-word translation, displayed beneath every Hebrew word. Looked like yea:

Acts 2.42-44 presented interlinear-style. Oak Tree Software

Wanted to buy it immediately, but the sucker was expensive. (A lot of interlinear bibles are. Low demand, y’see.) Something like $80 in 1980s money.

Ten years later I bought the NIV interlinear Old Testament, which was still a bit expensive: I paid $50 in ’90s money, plus shipping. Also got the NIV interlinear New Testament to go along with it.

Then I went to university, minored in biblical languages, and my Hebrew professor told me I had to get rid of my interlinears.

What? Why?

Because, he explained, it’s a “cheater bible.” Every time I pick it up to read Hebrew, I’m not really gonna read the Hebrew. My eyes are gonna drift down one line to the English translation. It’s like having an answer key: I wouldn’t have to practice my vocabulary. Wouldn’t have to remember any word-prefixes or word-endings. Wouldn’t have to remember a thing. The interlinear would be my crutch, and as my memory of Hebrew decayed—as it will, when you don’t practice—it’d become more and more of a crutch. I’d go right back to reading English instead of Hebrew. Yet I’d imagine to myself, “But I know Hebrew.”

Yeah, I had to admit he was absolutely right. Whenever I open up an interlinear text, that’s always what I catch myself doing. That’s why I’ve gotta turn off that software or close that book, and go back to a Hebrew-only text.

But that’s me, and anyone else who can read biblical languages. If you can’t—if you know a few original-language words, but certainly can’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, and wish you had more access to those languages—that’s what an interlinear bible will do for you. It erases some of the barrier between you and the original languages.

But there is still a language barrier. So don’t get overconfident.

26 September 2017

Hyperbole. So I don’t have to explain it a billion times.

You saw what I did there, right?

Hyperbole /haɪ'pər.bə.li/ n. Deliberate exaggeration: A claim not meant to be taken literally.
[Hyperbolic /haɪ.pər'bɑl.ək/ adj.]

You may not be so familiar with this word, but you’ve seen examples of it all your life. And that’s not hyperbole.

Humans use hyperbolic language to get attention. You might not think much of the statement, “I had to clean a lot of dishes.” You pay a little more attention to, “I had to clean a truckload of dishes.” The exaggerated image gets attention. May even inspire a mental image of a literal truckload of dishes. May even strike us as funny, horrifying, sad, irritating; like most acts of creativity, it runs the risk of pushing the wrong buttons.

Of course some hyperboles are so overused, they get no reaction anymore. They’ve become clichés. “I worked my fingers to the bone” probably horrified someone the first time they heard it—“No, really? Ewww”—but nobody bothers to flinch at it anymore. Not even if people claim, “I literally worked my fingers to the bone.” Usually no they didn’t.

Humans have always used hyperbolic language. Nope, that’s not a hyperbole either: We really have. We find it in every culture. We find it in the bible. Even God used it.

Amos 2.9 KWL
“I destroyed the Amorite before their very eyes,
whose height was like that of cedars, strong like oaks.
I destroyed their fruit above, and root below.”

So, do you imagine the Amorites were literally as tall as cedar trees? After all, God said so. And surely God doesn’t lie

See, that’s the problem with hyperbole and biblical interpretation. Too many people take the scriptures literally. They figure if God’s word is nothing but truth, Jn 17.17 the scriptures oughta be absolutely valid in every instance, and contain no exaggerations whatsoever. ’Cause liars exaggerate, but God’s no liar. Tt 1.2 And if these two ideas (“liars exaggerate” and “God’s no liar”) are equivalent, it logically follows God doesn’t exaggerate. Ever.

Neither does Jesus.

Luke 14.26 KWL
“If anyone comes to me yet won’t ‘hate’ their father, mother, woman, children, brothers, and sisters,
or even their own soul, they can’t be my student.”

See, I put “hate” in quotes, ’cause Jesus doesn’t literally mean hate; middle easterners used that word when they spoke about things which took lower priority. Top priority was “loved.” Lower priorities might’ve also been loved, but in comparison to that top priority, they weren’t loved as much; so “hated.”

This is one of those examples, like “working my fingers to the bone,” where the exaggeration is such a cliché, middle easterners thought nothing of it. Problem is, our culture doesn’t. To literalists—particularly members of cults—this means they’re to cut themselves off from their families entirely. Divorce spouses, abandon children, have nothing more to do with anyone from their past. Don’t honor parents; Ex 20.12 hate them. In so doing, the cult can gain greater control over their followers.

This is why I had to add quotes. The NLT went with, “You must hate everyone else by comparison.” Lk 14.26 NLT That works too.

02 August 2017

Connect-the-dots interpretation: Stop that.

Just because your brain sees a connection, doesn’t mean it’s real.

Your brain is designed to recognize patterns.

It’s how the brain stores data. It takes a memory, breaks it down into “what I know already” and “what’s new,” stores what’s new, and stores links to the memories we know already. And they don’t have to precisely be memories we know already; just stuff that’s close enough. If it sees a similarity, or pattern, in what we experience, that’s close enough.

That’s how we pack 50-plus years of experiences into a 100-terabyte brain. And explains why some of our memories are kinda sloppy: Our brains were pattern-matching things which weren’t accurate matches.

Our brains pattern-match inaccurate things all the time. Sometimes for fun: Ever played the game of “What does that cloud look like?” Or had to put up with your mom insisting that so-and-so looks like some celebrity, but you can’t see it at all? Or been startled by a shadow which kinda looked like a stranger was in your house, but turns out it wasn’t?

Psychologists call this tendency apophenia: Your brain’s making a connection which isn’t really there. Happens all the time, and a lot of the time we realize this and are amused by it.

This person is pretty sure the word “love” is written in his cat’s fur. I see more of an “HXICVW,” but you know how people tend to see what they wanna see. Reddit

But other times we’re deliberately looking for connections. Like detectives trying to solve a case, like mathematicians looking for a statistical trend, like gamblers looking for a lucky streak, like conspiracy theorists searching for a cover-up. They wanna find a connection so bad, they’ll jump right on top of anything. Including all the bad matches our brain makes.

Yep, we Christians do it too. When we want a sign from God badly enough, we’ll settle for anything; we won’t even bother to confirm it. Or when we’re scouring the bible for truths and revelations, and find coincidences… and if we wrongly believe nothing is meaningless, we’ll insist these can’t be coincidences; they’re revelations!

Happens all the time. Generates a whole lot of really bad bible interpretations. So it’s something I gotta warn you about, lest you stumble into this trap yourself. Or be led into it by an overzealous preacher.

End Times preachers in particular; many of ’em are just the right combination of conspiracy theorist and connect-the-dots misinterpreter.