Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bible Reading Helps, Gen & Matt


I. Primeval History chs 1-11
A. Creation and Fall chs 1-3
B. Cain and Abel chs 4-5
C. The Flood chs 6-9
D. The populating of the world chs 10-11
II. Patriarchal History chs 12-50
A. Abraham chs 12-23
B. Isaac chs 24-26
C. Jacob chs 27-36
D. Joseph chs 37-50

The Book of Genesis takes us from the beginning of the world to the descent of Jacob and his family into Egypt. The first part of the book deals with the world as a whole, but after the Fall divides it into two separate lines—the line of promise and the line of judgment. The second part of the book deals with the development of the line of promise under the Abrahamic covenant, as that covenant is passed down to the sons of Jacob, who embody the promised people of God.

Suggested Commentaries
For general readers: Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series.
For more technical use: Victor Hamilton, Genesis, New International Commentary series (2 vols.); G. Wenham, Genesis, Word Biblical Commentary series (2 vols.).
For devotional reading: Matthew Henry


I. Jesus’ Birth and Baptism chs 1-4
II. The Sermon on the Mount chs 5-7
III. Calling the Disciples chs 8-10
IV. The Gospel of the Kingdom chs 11-13
V. The Time of Testing chs 14-18
VI. The Last Week, including the Olivet Discourse (chs 24-25) chs 19-25
VII. Crucifixion and Resurrection chs 26-28

The Gospel of Matthew is directed to a largely Jewish audience, focusing on Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and of his kingly messianic office. The book is organized around five extended “preaching” sections all ending in a similar fashion (see 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; and 26:1).

Suggested Commentaries
For general readers: Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Matthew by R. T. France; J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. The latter are more thorough in John, but serviceable in Matthew.
For more technical use: D. A. Carson in Expositor’s Bible Commentary; also the larger works by Craig Blomberg (New American Commentary) and Craig Keener (published by Eerdmans, not the smaller work published by InterVarsity).

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The reasons I am so strongly opposed to the NIV rendering of hebel (the Hebrew word translated “meaningless” in Ecclesiastes in the NIV) are as follows:

1. The basic meaning of hebel is "breath." It is, to an extent, synonymous with ruach.

2. Thus, something that is hebel is evanescent, not long-lasting, not having much in the way of substance, impossible to grasp (hence the occasional pairing of hebel with "chasing after wind" in Ecclesiastes).

3. None of those uses argue "meaningless" as an apt rendering for hebel.

My own sense is that "meaningless" for hebel comes from two sources. First, it is (and I am admittedly psychologizing here) an attempt to render "vanity" in modern English, rather than to render hebel in modern English. That is, I suspect the NIV translators were, in part, motivated by a desire to have the modern reader understand the English word "vanity" (so familiar from the KJV), rather than to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word hebel.

Second, I think the rendering "meaningless" has arisen out of a misreading of the book as a whole. Modern evangelical scholars have been too influenced by the idea that Ecclesiastes was (a) influenced by Greek skeptical thought of one sort or another, or (b) that the bulk of the book was written by some heterodox Jew that some orthodox Jew later tried to rehabilitate (though God alone knows why that scenario would produce a book in the canon of Scripture), or (c) that the book, whatever its background and influences, is in its essence contradictory, cynical, skeptical, lacking faith. In that context, perhaps "meaningless" makes a good rendering of hebel, but it has to ignore lexical as well as contextual evidence to do so.

A careful reading of Ecclesiastes would show the reader that the author (Solomon, in my view) is actually using the word hebel in a number of ways, here indicating that something is brief, there indicating that something lacks substance, another place that because of the nature of something as hebel that it produces frustration. In none of those cases is "meaningless" a good fit for the use of hebel.

Finally, there are two NT passages that are intended to inform us regarding the significance of Ecclesiastes (and of hebel). The first is Romans 8:20 "for the creature is subject to vanity" (Geneva Bible). The word translated "vanity" there is the same Greek word used in the Septuagint for hebel. God did not subject the creation to meaninglessness, but to temporariness, to frustration, in order to remind us that "under the sun" is not all there is.

The second passage is James 4:14. I think the significance relative to Ecclesiastes is evident.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ecclesiaste Commentaries

Recommendations on Ecclesiastes Commentaries

My starting point is the organization of the book, because without a good understanding of how the book fits together, you're almost certain to go wrong at some point. The book is notoriously difficult to outline, however. For this, I would recommend the chapter on Ecclesiastes in David Dorsey's The Literary Structure of the Old Testament. He might not have solved all the problems, but he has certainly solved most.

Then, for good, but brief treatments that can help give you a good feel for the book, I recommend Michael Eaton's commentary in the Tyndale OT series, as well as Derek Kidner's contribution to the The Bible Speaks Today Series, titled A Time to Mourn and a Time to Dance.

For dealing with more technical questions of grammar and syntax, and for critical views, I would recommend Roland Murphy in the Word Biblical Commentary series.

For sermonic helps and good theological understanding, I recommend Charles Bridges, a nineteenth century commentator reprinted in the Banner of Truth Geneva Commentary series..

One further note. I see the book as entirely unified in message and purpose. (In addition I have no trouble with Solomonic authorship, because I don't find the linguistic arguments against it compelling, and those are the only arguments against Solomonic authorship that have much substance.) Since I see the book as a unity, I have real problems with those interpreters who see the book as harboring essential contradictions. Hence, I find such commentators as Tremper Longman, Michael Fox, and Roland Murphy to be unreliable guides. I think Murphy to be not quite as unreliable as the other two. There is in these interpreters an unhealthy skepticism toward the Biblical text that is not only inherently dangerous, but it fails properly to understand the book itself.

P.S. The decision of the NIV to translate hebel (vanity) as "meaningless" has done more to contribute to the common misunderstanding of Ecclesiastes than any other single thing.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas is currently being publicized by the National Geographic Society as a new and important discovery. Unfortunately for the NGS, The Gospel of Judas is neither new nor important. Its release, however, is remarkably timed to correspond both with the regular media assault on orthodox Christianity that occurs every Christmas and Easter and with the upcoming release of the movie version of Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code.

First, the facts about The Gospel of Judas. This particular manuscript was found in the 1970’s, finally ending up in the hands of the NGS. The manuscript, on the basis of both paleographical and carbon dating, dates back to the 3rd or 4th centuries AD. The “gospel” itself dates back probably to the mid-second century AD, since it is mentioned in Against Heresies by the early church father Irenaeus about AD 180. This puts it in the same time frame as most of the other “gospels” that came out of Gnostic circles in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, such as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary. Most of these so-called gospels have been readily available to the reading public since the late 19th century. Many of them are collected in a volume titled The Lost Books of the Bible and published originally in 1926 (though the translations are much earlier).

Those familiar with the four canonical gospels will find themselves at sea when they begin reading The Gospel of Judas, or any other of the Gnostic gospels. There is no story here. There is little to no narrative. There are no historical references. Instead there is seemingly endless talking. Jesus is explaining to Judas all the things that he can’t explain to the other apostles. Judas alone is privileged to receive this secret knowledge, which he is then to preserve and pass down.

There is nothing distinctive here. It reads like all the other Gnostic gospels. The emphasis is on secret knowledge, hence the name Gnostic (from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge). Unlike orthodox Christianity, which even early on was distinguishing itself by creedal statements to show the unity of the church’s belief, there was no such unity of belief among the Gnostics. Instead there were characteristic features of Gnostic thought. One of these is an extreme dualism. In this dualism, body is bad, spirit is good. Thus, according to The Gospel of Judas, Jesus needed Judas to betray him so that he could be killed and freed from his physical body. In the Gnostic “system” sin is essentially ignorance and salvation is essentially knowledge. Man is lost in sin (read “ignorance”) and hence must have a redeemer (a bringer of true “knowledge”) so that he may be released from bondage to this material world and restored to the divine realm. In this, ancient Gnosticism differs little from modern forms of Gnosticism in which the true problem is ignorance, and salvation is gained by instruction in the true (but hidden) knowledge. There is, however, no real similarity between Gnosticism, in either its ancient or modern forms, and Biblical Christianity. Don’t be led astray. There is not only no gospel (good news) in The Gospel of Judas, there is also no truth.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

On Reading the Bible #1

On Reading the Bible #1

Many Christians have tried at one time or another to read all the way through the Bible. Some have succeeded, but most have given up at some point, usually early in the process. There are a number of reasons that the project to read through the Bible will much more likely fail than succeed, and most people who attempt the project do not stop to consider them, thus setting themselves up for failure before they even begin the project. In this and future postings, I will deal with some of these problems and propose solutions.

Why Bother?

The reader might ask why I bother, since most Christians seem to make it through this life with some success without ever having read their Bibles all the way through, often without even having read very much of it. The primary reason, if not the sole reason, is that the Bible is the Word of God. It is given “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The better a Christian knows the Bible, the better he knows the voice of God. The better a Christian knows the voice of God, the more likely he is actually to live in accord with what God requires in his Word. The more a Christian lives in accord with the requirements of God’s Word, the more God is glorified.

A second reason for encouraging people to read through their Bibles is that, once a person is aware of the difficulties of the project, plans for dealing with the difficulties can be made, and the project becomes more manageable. Another way of thinking about it is illustrated by the difference between the 100-meter dash and the marathon. Most people could run 100 meters without any preparation. They might not do it very fast. They might be breathing really hard by the time they finish. Their heart rate may have risen to near maximum. But they could do it. No one, on the other hand, would think it possible to run a marathon without preparation, and would not attempt to do it. But every year there are people who attempt to run an intellectual marathon without preparation, and then wonder why they fail. Reading an anecdote in Reader’s Digest is a 100-meter dash. Almost anyone can do it, even if they do not read well or often. Reading the Bible all the way through is a marathon and in order to accomplish the task, preparation is necessary. It is my intent to help the reader who is serious about reading through the Bible see the obstacles and overcome them, so that he may accomplish his goal.

Why People Fail

One reason people fail to read through the Bible once they have started is they simply are not readers. They read almost nothing, ever, so though they can read, they don’t read and they are badly out of practice. The first step in reading through the Bible is to get in the practice of reading. Read something short. Read something simple. But read something every day. Get in the practice of reading. Make it your first goal, perhaps, to read an issue of Reader’s Digest all the way through in a month. The average Reader’s Digest issue is a little over 200 pages in length, but only 100-120 pages of it is actually reading text. The remainder is advertising and illustrations. Thus, about four pages per day would get the out-of-practice reader back into the practice of reading, but even more, reading regularly.