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11 January 2019

Transliteration: Because in some languages, you’re illiterate.

No offense, but if you can’t read their alphabet, you are illiterate. So here’s a quick fix.

By now you’ve likely learned the bible wasn’t originally written in English. (Although good luck informing certain King James Only folks of this. Most of ’em know better, but there are some holdouts who still think God speaks in King James English.)

The bible was written in three dead languages, languages nobody speaks anymore. The present-day versions of these languages are not the same. Languages evolve. Modern Hebrew uses western word order (subject-verb-object, “I go home”), and ancient Hebrew uses middle eastern word order (verb-subject-object “Go I home”). Plus the vocabulary’s way bigger, what with all the loanwords from Yiddish, English, German, Russian, and Arabic. Plus the pronunciation’s different, much like the differences between American English and British English. Modern Greek follows new grammatical rules. Neo-Aramaic speakers love to point out Jesus spoke Aramaic like them, but the Babylonian Aramaic of the bible (and the first-century Syrian Aramaic which Jesus spoke) is like saying Geoffrey Chaucer spoke English like us. He did… and kinda didn’t.

The Old Testament was written in what we call Biblical Hebrew—the older parts in Early Biblical Hebrew, and the Aramaic-influenced later parts in Later Biblical Hebrew. A few chapters were written in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian Empire—the language Daniel put some of his visions into. After the Jews returned from Babylon, that’s what they spoke, and that’s what Jesus spoke, as demonstrated by the few direct quotes we have of him in the New Testament. As for the NT, it’s in a form of Alexandrian Greek we call Koine Greek, a term which comes from the word κοινή/kiní, “common.”

And I know; most of my readers don’t know these languages. I learned them in seminary, ’cause I wanted to know how to read the original texts of the bible. I wanted to read it unfiltered by a translator. Not that most translators don’t know what they’re doing; not that most English translations aren’t well done. They are. But if I’m gonna seriously study bible, I still wanna read the original, and go through the process of translation myself. That’s why I translate it for TXAB.

In so doing, I often need to talk about the original-language words. So I convert ’em into our alphabet so you can kinda read them. It’s called transliteration. People have always done it. Mark did it in the bible, converting some of Jesus’s Aramaic sayings into Greek characters, like so—

Mark 5.41-42 KWL
41 He gripped the child’s hand and told her, “Talítha kum” (which is translated, “Get up, I say”)
42 and the girl instantly got up, and was walking around—she was 12 years old.
They were amazed and ecstatic.

—turning the original טליתא קומי into ταλιθα κουμ for Greek-speakers who couldn’t read the Aramaic alphabet.

Until recently I’ve transliterated everything on this blog, and left the original Hebrew and Greek out. ’Cause foreign languages intimidate certain people. Throw some Hebrew-alphabet words on a page, and people flinch: “Oh no, he’s writing in Hebrew! I can’t possibly read that. I can’t possibly read anything he’s written; he’ll get too technical for me.” I know; to many of you this sounds ridiculous. But I assure you people really do get that way. And I didn’t wanna alienate readers.

I’ve lately come to realize in so doing, I’m accommodating people’s irrational fears. And shouldn’t. Such fears are wholly inappropriate for Christians. If foreign languages freak you out, you need to get over it. Need to. It ruins your ability to share Jesus with foreigners—and with anybody who has compassion for foreigners. You know, like Jesus, who includes us foreigners in his kingdom. So here on out, I’m gonna include the original text in TXAB—and relax, I’ll still transliterate it for you.

But I’ve received comments from people who aren’t sure I’m transliterating properly. Fr’instance when I write on love, I render the Greek word ἀγάπη as agápi. And they’re pretty sure I’ve done it wrong. Everybody they know spells it “agape,” with an E… and pronounces it ə'gɑ.peɪ, not ɑ'gɑ.pi.

Well, everybody they know is doing it wrong. Modern Greek speakers pronounce it ɑ'gɑ.pi, so I’m going with them.

True, ancient Hebrew and Greek is not modern Hebrew and Greek. Doesn’t matter. Today’s native speakers have the pronunciation way closer than Americans do. And for the most part Americans aren’t even trying to get the pronunciation right. They’re just repeating the way they heard other Christians and scholars say it. They’re following the crowd. Even if they learned how to pronounce these languages properly in seminary; even if they grew up in Israel or Greece! That’s just how corrupting peer pressure can be.

I strive for accuracy. So should we all. So I’ll include my transliteration scheme here, for transparency’s sake. And of course you can compare it with your favorite Greek or Hebrew dictionaries… including the mangled way they sometimes pronounce these words, which likewise bear no relation to how native speakers properly do it.

10 January 2019

Grace. (It really is amazing.)

If you don’t understand what grace is—and many don’t—you likely aren’t practicing it.

GRACE greɪs noun. God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people.
2. A prayer of thanksgiving.
[Gracious 'greɪ.ʃəs adjective.]

Years ago I was in a kids’ Sunday school class when the head pastor visited and the kids were encouraged to ask him anything. Bad idea. We spent way too much time discussing the existence of space aliens. The pastor’s view: They’re not real, and all UFO sightings are probably devils messing with people. He was one of those dark Christians who think devils are just everywhere.

Dark Christianity is likely why this pastor punted this question: One of the kids asked him what “grace” is.

Someone had previously told her we Christians are saved by grace. Ep 2.8 So she understandably wanted to know what this “grace” substance was. She wanted to get it and be saved. Her assumption—same as that of way too many Christians—is it’s some sort of heavenly pixie dust.

Pastor’s response: “We can’t define grace. It’s a mystery. It just is.”

I know: Shouldn’t a pastor, of all people, know what grace is? Shouldn’t any Christian in church leadership? Heck, shouldn’t every Christian know what grace is?

Problem is, many Christians don’t know… because they think we’re saved by other things.

  • Saved by good karma: Be a “good person” and God’ll let you into heaven. (This is commonly called “works righteousness.”)
  • Saved by saying the sinner’s prayer.
  • Saved by getting baptized. Or taking regular holy communion. Or going to church, or by otherwise being religious. (It’s just another form of works righteousness.)
  • Saved by faith—by which they mean if they believe really, really hard they’re saved (or “have faith“ they’re saved), they are.
  • Saved by their religious faith, their belief system. If they believe all the correct things, it saves ’em. (I call it “faith righteousness.” It’s probably the most common belief among dark Christians.)
  • Saved by our relationship to some other saint, who can “get us in.”

If you imagine you’re saved by anything other than grace, stands to reason you won’t understand grace very well. You won’t care about it. You won’t practice it much; maybe with family members and certain friends, but it won’t extend to many others. Or, like Christ Jesus wants, everyone.

So since Pastor didn’t know what grace was, and I did, I explained it once he left the room. (I figured since he wasn’t clear on the concept, he wouldn’t appreciate me correcting him.)

Most of the time, I hear Christians define grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” It’s that too. But we still tend to talk about grace as if it’s a material substance. ’Cause God “pours it out” on us, or “gives” or “extends” it, or “covers us” with it. It’s a liquid, a powder, a mist, a blanket, a trinket. An object, not an attitude.

But grace is God’s attitude. He loves us despite our bad behavior, despite our rebelliousness, despite our apathy, despite our outright hostility towards him sometimes. Grace is the way God thinks of us. His attitude overwhelms and overcomes everything we totally deserve. He oughta give up on us and sweep us away with raging fire. But he forgives all, loves us regardless—even adopts us as his kids and gives us his kingdom.

That’s why we call it amazing.

09 January 2019

Historical Jesus. (Who ain’t all that historical.)

So here’s a little transcript of a discussion I once had with a skeptic. Slightly abridged.

HE. “Jesus never said that.”
ME. “Sure he did. In Mark 16.52 he clearly states….”
HE. “No, that’s what the bible says he said. I’m talking about what he actually said. Not what some Roman Christian, centuries later, claims he said.”

Where’d he get the idea the gospels aren’t historical?—that the Jesus we Christians believe in, is just ancient Christian fanfiction? This, true believers, is what we call the Historical Jesus hypothesis.

When he wasn’t staying in the White House, Thomas Jefferson used to spend his evenings at home in Virginia with four bibles (two copies each, so he could get the text from either side of the page), scissors and paste, splicing together a private book he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Nowadays we call it “the Jefferson Bible.” In Jefferson’s version of the story, Jesus does no miracles (except one or two, which Jefferson left in because he liked the lessons in those particular stories).


Displayed in Greek, Latin, French, and English—though Jefferson’s ancient-language skills were iffy, so sometimes they don’t line up perfectly. UVA Magazine

Y’see, Jefferson believed God doesn’t interfere with nature, and therefore Jesus never did miracles. He was only a teacher of morals. Miracles were added years later by supernaturalist Christians. So Jefferson literally cut out the miracles and kept the lessons. Well… the lessons he liked; not so much the hard-for-him-to-believe statements Jesus makes throughout John.

So yeah, the Historical Jesus idea isn’t new. It predates Jefferson. It stretches all the way back to the most ancient church; you see it in Marcion of Sinope. It’s based on the Jesus we know—the Jesus of the gospels and the apostles’ letters, the Jesus who still appears to people, the Jesus who’s coming back. But it’s a Jesus edited with scissors and paste, as people trim away everything they can’t or won’t believe.

08 January 2019

Pray!

Prayer is talking with God. No more; no less; that’s all.

Yeah, you’d be surprised how many people, including us Christians, think I’m oversimplifying and it’s way more complicated than that. Prayer, they claim, is a profound mystical and spiritual undertaking which must only be done thoughtfully, seriously, soberly, and ritually. Only then will it work.

Their claim is all crap. It’s awfully popular crap, and some people are so used to the idea you’re never gonna change their minds about it. So long that they’re legitimately talking with God, I figure it won’t hurt ’em to believe it. But their ideas might get in your way of talking with him, and let’s not have that.

Anyway here’s the ritual they like to go with. If you’re doing it too, you can cut it out.

1. “THE RIGHT SPIRIT.” By which they don’t mean a literal spirit, but a mindset. A mood. It’s what I call the “prayer mood.” It’s an attitude of “Have mercy on me, oh Lord; I suffer.” But mix a few more sanctimonious things in there:

  • GRATITUDE: God’s about to grant our wishes!
  • EXPECTATION: We’re s’posed to have faith God’ll actually answer our requests.
  • AWE: God is awesome.
  • REMORSE: We’re dirty sinners.
  • CONFIDENCE: Yes, at the same time as remorse; we’re still daughters and sons of God, and oughta come boldly before his throne. He 4.16

There’s all sorts of contradictory information about how to feel when we approach God, and good luck regurgitating all of it at once. It’ll get messy. So try to psyche yourself into it.

2. POSTURE. Christians tend to have three approved yoga poses positions to get your body into when you pray.

  • HEAD BOWED, EYES CLOSED. The most common—especially in church services, mostly so you can’t see who’s raising their hands for prayer.
  • FACEDOWN ON THE GROUND. Or “lying prostrate.” Very appropriate for praying in private. Not so much before lunch in the middle of Taco Bell. (Dare you to try it though.)
  • HANDS OUTSTRETCHED, FACING THE SKY. Sorta like we’re welcoming God. But for some reason certain Christians like to do it with their eyes still closed—even with our heads still bowed! Which is probably a good idea if the sun’s really bright, but makes us a little less welcoming.

3. INCANTATIONS. No seriously. An incantation is a series of words one has to say as part of a religious ritual. So when Christians teach us we gotta say certain words, they’re teaching us incantations. (And here you thought incantations were just for witches.) There’s “Dear LORD” or “Precious Heavenly Father” or “Father God” or whatever initial words we use to “dial” God. And there’s nearly always “Amen” we use to “hang up.” Plus don’t forget to pray for all this stuff “in Jesus name,” which means whatever we think “in Jesus name” means. (Usually it means “I said ‘in Jesus name,’ so now I get what I asked for. Right?”)

Okay, are we done? No?—apparently there are beads and prayer cloths and prayer mats and prayer closets and other tchotchkes? Well, I’m done, ’cause I wanna get back to what prayer really is: Talking with God.

07 January 2019

We’re wrong about God, y’know.

The quest for knowledge always begins by knowing we don’t know—and wrong about what we think we know.

One of my favorite Peanuts strips goes a little something like this. (I liked it so much I used to include it in the Theology banner.)


Peanuts, 9 August 1976. Peanuts Worldwide

Theology is the study of God. If we’re gonna follow God we gotta study him. Gotta find out what he wants, what he expects of us. Heck, gotta find out if he’s even a “he,” and we’re not using the wrong pronoun. (Fastest way to yank the chain of certain Christians: Use a different one. But let up after you’ve freaked them out a few minutes. Be nice.)

Square One of theology is humility, the recognition of who we truly are. And who are we? Well, the usual Christian response to that question is “Um… nobody really.”

Which isn’t entirely true. That’s the answer we give ’cause our fellow Christians expect it of us… and it’s hypocrisy. It’s pretending to be, what we deep down know we aren’t. It’s false humility. We don’t have that low an opinion of ourselves. If we did, we’d figure ourselves totally unworthy of God, and never bring ourselves to study him. In fact for some Christians, they do have that low an opinion of themselves, and don’t study him.

So let’s set the B.S. aside and get honest: We suspect we can know God, or at least know him better. And that’s good! God wants us to know him better. It’s why he sent us Jesus. It’s why he made us—to answer that “who are we?” question definitively—adoptive daughters and sons of the most high God. Jn 1.12 That ain’t nothing. We’re precisely the people who should study God.

Theology is the birthright of every Christian. Any Christian who doesn’t bother to investigate their Father is destined to have a really sucky, substandard, dysfunctional relationship with him. Which surely isn’t what he wants. Hope you don’t either.

So yeah, we need to get into theology. We need to study God. All of us. You included.