This post will tread closer to topics that I would rather not debate at this site, yet I feel as if it is important for me to write it out – it helps me to think it out. So…I ask for some leeway and will also offer some leeway in the comments. Just remain polite and respectful of others.
It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
A conversation between Sarah and Paul VanderKlay, at about the 38-minute mark:
Sarah: Do you think the Bible can be an idol itself?
Paul: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And we see that played out often. Idol and icon: what’s the difference. An icon we are supposed to see through. Jesus is the icon of the invisible God; I am quoting Greek here. The book of Colossians. We are supposed to see through the Bible to the Bible’s source. That’s the whole idea of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
When we stop seeing through the Bible to its source and just divinize the Bible itself, well, now you’re worshipping a book and we are not supposed to worship a book.
Of course, the Bible is the Word of God. But it isn’t God. Can words capture God? Words that are comprehensible to humans?
The Bible was originally written in many languages, all – to varying degrees – languages lost to history. The Bible describes that which is almost incomprehensible to humans...in any language. Both conditions drive us to difficulty in interpretation – a challenge ongoing even today. Sola Scriptura hasn’t resolved these issues.
Regarding the Hebrew Bible of 39 books:
The texts were mainly written in Biblical Hebrew, with some portions (notably in Daniel and Ezra) in Biblical Aramaic. Biblical Hebrew, sometimes called Classical Hebrew, is an archaic form of the Hebrew language.
The first translation was into Greek, but this wasn’t the Greek of opah and ouzo. It was Koine Greek, “spoken and written during the Hellenistic period, the Roman Empire, and the early Byzantine Empire, or late antiquity.”
The Latin Vulgate by Jerome was based upon the Hebrew for those books of the Bible preserved in the Jewish canon (as reflected in the Masoretic Text), and on the Greek text for the rest. …Christian translations also tend to be based upon the Hebrew, though some denominations prefer the Septuagint (or may cite variant readings from both).
We haven’t even come yet to the New Testament….
The books of the Christian New Testament are widely agreed to have originally been written in Greek, specifically Koine Greek, even though some authors often included translations from Hebrew and Aramaic texts.
Some scholars believe that some books of the Greek New Testament (in particular, the Gospel of Matthew) are actually translations of a Hebrew or Aramaic original.
And some believe the original language of Mark was Latin. That’s wild.
But WWJS? In what language did Jesus converse?
It is generally agreed by historians that Jesus and his disciples primarily spoke Aramaic (Jewish Palestinian Aramaic), the common language of Judea in the first century AD, most likely a Galilean dialect distinguishable from that of Jerusalem.
Keep in mind: people didn’t travel much then. There was no such thing as mass media beyond one’s village. Language and dialect varied even from village to village – a “Galilean dialect distinguishable from that of Jerusalem.”
The villages of Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his time, were Aramaic-speaking communities. It is also likely that Jesus knew enough Koine Greek to converse with those not native to Palestine, and it is also possible that Jesus knew some Hebrew for religious purposes.
Of course, Jesus knew enough of any language necessary; He spoke in the language common to the people to whom He was speaking. Koine Greek, Aramaic of a Galilean dialect, Hebrew. And I am certain: none of these could be understood by any speakers of Greek or Hebrew today. As to Aramaic:
Neo-Aramaic languages are still spoken today as a first language by many communities: predominately by the Christian Assyrians, followed by the Mandaeans, and nearly extinct among the Jews of Western Asia. There are numerous variants spoken by Assyrians…
And I am certain it isn’t the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
What is my point. The difficulty of interpretation was built into the Bible from the beginning. The Bible, from the beginning, was a translated text. Think about what this means – both regarding our humility toward it and about it as well as the necessary nuance and subtlety with which we must approach our understanding.
We have enough trouble communicating difficult topics in writing via our native language. Increase this difficulty exponentially when dealing with multiple translations. Of course, scholars and theologians will go to the original Greek – but it wasn’t even originally in Greek. And have you tried understanding words in Greek – or any other language? It usually takes several words in English to get some general idea of what one word from another language means.
Bible Gateway offers almost sixty different versions of the Bible – and that is just in English! If understanding was so straightforward, would this be happening?
I have been chastised (or mocked) by the Saker: go to the Patristic fathers, he says. Fair enough. But I can do him one better. Let’s go to the disciples – the ones who actually walked with Jesus and heard His actual words in their native dialect – the same words we are hearing twentieth-hand and the same words that even the Patristic fathers heard third or fourth hand.
I could cite several examples of Jesus’s frustration at his disciples’ lack of understanding – the same disciples who heard it straight from Him, the same ones who lived in His culture and context, the same ones who spoke His language and dialect, the same ones who saw His miracles. Even from the beginning our knowledge and understanding was to be only partial:
Paul told us what was most important: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) and the importance of love (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8). Our knowledge, he says, is only partial (verse 9). It will be completed after Christ returns, but for now, love is more important than knowledge (verses 13, 2). In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that doctrinal correctness is not important. We strive for correctness, but admit that we are not infallible.
That would be the Apostle Paul to you; don’t refer to him as if he was your buddy.
Peter was ready to bring on the revolt against the Romans, with his sword on the ear of the guard. Some say that the betrayal by Judas was actually his attempt to force Jesus to lead the revolt against Rome. In the first chapter of Acts, they asked “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” This is how well the disciples of Jesus understood Jesus.
Further, read the accounts of the early church in Acts and several of Paul’s letters – talk about family feuds. How on earth did this bunch of ragamuffins – divided bitterly regarding doctrinal correctness – ever conquer Rome?
Yes, we should understand the Patristic fathers, but we must also understand the complexity of the task of understanding – so complex that those closest to Jesus didn’t get it; so complex that interpretation continues – as it must – even today.
So, I return to the discussion between Sarah and Paul VanderKlay:
Sarah: It seems like that sort of Biblical idolatry is tied to trying to fit the Bible into this very materialist, literalist type of interpretation.
We want to force the Bible to fit. Sarah is getting at the historicity of the Bible.
Literal: in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical. …following the words of the original very closely and exactly.
You tell me: what, on earth, can be “literal” about the Bible? What, on earth, can be literal about anything in language? We have to define our meaning all the time – and this in our own language: words as seemingly simple as liberty, equality and fraternity. Consider this reality when trying to understand the meaning of words from which we are removed twenty-fold, and then let me know about “literal”!
Allow me to compound the problem: The Bible is intended for us to find God; it is not intended for science, biology, anatomy, even history beyond that which is aimed at finding God. Do you think this finding of God can be put into words – words in any language, words subject to clear and unequivocal interpretation by even the most scholarly of human beings?
Until about three hundred years ago, the most brilliant scholars in the Christian world were grounded in understanding the Bible. Many of these devoted their entire lifetimes to its study; all of these took it as necessary for education and understanding of the world around them. Yet, here we are – with less consensus than ever.
John 1: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
What can we truly comprehend about any of this – even these four short verses, about 50 words? Yes, we cannot escape the Word. But to think that we – the clay in this creation, waiting to be molded – can comprehend infallibly even these four short verses of the Word is arrogance of the highest order.
Many want to take the Bible literally. You cannot – God cannot be understood in such a manner, and for sure not in a language twenty times removed from you and infinitely removed from God. In any case, there are too many passages where a literal understanding is not in any way possible.
Am I suggesting that we should accept some parts of the Bible as irrational, not grounded in reason? Hardly, in fact precisely the opposite. God is the source of both reason and faith. How could these be in contradiction? How could a faithful Christian be afraid of using reason to break open the mysteries of the Bible? He will not disprove God; he will only come to understand God more deeply.
Where humans criticize the Bible for apparent contradictions between faith and reason, this only reflects the shortcomings of humans – for all of the reasons given.
Am I suggesting that we are free to make up any meaning we want from the Bible? Hardly. But if it was so simple to understand the meaning, why would the Apostle Paul remind us that we can only know in part until the perfect comes?
We look through the Bible to see God; we have been given Jesus Christ – the Form of the Good made manifest – to aid us in our understanding.
1 Corinthians 13: 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Paul wrote of the resurrection as being most important; from the first days after the Resurrection, we see the same thing:
Acts 2: 32 “God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.
37 Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
This is Peter – the same Peter who was a scared little baby when Jesus was taken to be crucified. Do you want evidence of a miracle? Christianity was born from this – against the mightiest empire and against the religious leaders; it has outlasted countless man-made empires and institutions. It conquered the empire (for the good and bad of this outcome) without sword or army. This is more miraculous than turning water into wine or any such.
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.
…to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teachings of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ than the less satisfactory of the disciples.
Do you think those first 3,000 understood perfectly, or was their incomplete understanding sufficient? They were added to the church “that day.” Their incomplete understanding was apparently quite sufficient.
We use the Bible to see through to God. Try to make any sense out of the first four verses of John. Wrap your mind around the Resurrection and its implications. Understanding even these snippets of the narrative is difficult enough for one lifetime, even a lifetime built on the shoulders of the giants before us.
As I have internalized these thoughts, my faith has grown significantly. This has been an important side effect of searching for a proper foundation for liberty – clearly the side-effect has proven more important than the original objective.
Reason does not do battle with faith. Nor does Christianity do battle with Liberty. Nor do custom and tradition do battle with Christianity. Each of these, in fact, support the others. The more that I grasp these, the more that my reason, faith, Christianity and liberty grow.
Not a bad side-effect for this little insect.