Saturday, December 27, 2008

In the Beginning: The Need for Theological Exegesis

Just a taste of the kind of exegetical comments I will be making in 2009 as we read through the Bible.

The traditional rendering of the opening verse of the Bible is, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." But a number of newer translations have challenged that rendering by offering other possible renderings. The NRSV offers three possibilities, one in the text itself, and two in the footnote. The text version is, "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth," (note the comma). The first alternative is, "When God began to create the heavens and the earth," (again, note the comma). The second alternative is the traditional rendering. In his commentary on Genesis (Word Biblical Commentary series), Gordon Wenham discusses four possible ways of taking the text (pp. 11-15) though in the end he prefers the traditional rendering. Barry Bandstra in his Genesis 1-11: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, pp. 41-49 also discusses various options, from a technical linguistics/discourse analysis approach. Again, he prefers the traditional approach, but recognizes the viability of the other options.

The purpose of this comment is not to call into question the traditional rendering, but to note that a detailed understanding of Hebrew grammar and syntax will not tell us which rendering is the correct rendering. All of the options are grammatically and syntactically possible. In addition, linguistics/discourse analysis cannot solve the problem, because all of the options are again possible. The question can only be answered theologically, and each of the options represents different theological assumptions: about God, about the text, and about what the text is to be understood as teaching in its larger context. The NRSV, for example, is influenced by a late medieval rabbinic understanding, as well as by the assumption that Genesis 1 has certain commonalities with an Ancient Near Eastern "creation" text known as Enuma elish. This text is titled from its opening words, which mean "when, on high." It then goes on to tell the story of "creation" from a polytheistic perspective.

Another way of putting all this is that words have their meanings in contexts, but, particularly with Biblical texts, those contexts include the theological context. Is the text part of a much larger collection of texts that constitute the Word of God written? Or is the text part of a compilation over time of ancient Israelite religious texts, written from a variety of theological perspectives? How you answer those questions will affect not only your exegesis of texts, it will also affect your translation of texts.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Reading Through the Bible

Okay, you've tried it before. Maybe you've succeeded, maybe you haven't. But if you're interested in trying to read through the Bible in 2009, you can find a reading schedule here:

I plan on giving you some help along the way.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bible Humor and Translation Issues

If someone ever asks you if the name "Ed" is a biblical name, the answer is yes. In Josh 22:34, the KJV reads, And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed: for it shall be a witness between us that the Lord is God. Most modern readers of English probably find a touch of humor in that verse, thinking about an altar named Ed. Now the KJV does give the marginal reading "witness." The difference between "Ed" and "witness" is that the former is a transliteration of the Hebrew word that means "witness," while the latter is simply a translation. Most modern versions have gone with the latter.

But this is a real problem for translators: what to do with names. Should the name be translated, or should it be transliterated? That sounds like it should be an easy question to answer, but it is not. Biblical names often have meaning that are significant to the context. So it might seem to the reader that the thing for the translators to do is to simply translate the name. But if that is done, the fact that the word is a name may then be lost. When faced with such a decision, whether to translate or to transliterate, translations usually do the following. They put one version of the name in the text (for example the KJV putting Ed in the text of Josh 22:34) and then put the other version of the name (in this case "witness") in the margin. But it seems that most translations take this issue on a case-by-case basis.

A great sample text here is Is 62:4, because the verse seems to have four names in it. The ASV translates the first two, and transliterates the last two, as does the NIV. The ESV translates all four as does the NLT and the NRSV.

In any case, when it comes to naming children, remember that Ed is a biblical name.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Head Coverings: Part 2 Calvin

The view of Calvin on this matter is set out briefly but clearly in his comments on 1 Cor 11:3, where he says, "it is an unseemly thing for women to appear in a public assembly with their heads uncovered, and, on the other hand, for men to pray or prophesy with their heads covered." That certainly seems to settle the matter. What is curious about this fact is that the Geneva Bible, which appeared a relatively short time later, and under the influence of Calvin, held to a different view, as was shown in the last post. Hence, it is profitable to take a closer look at Calvin's comments in the ensuing verses.

In commenting on vs 4, Calvin says, "For we must not be so scrupulous as to look upon it as a criminal thing for a teacher to have a cap on his head, when addressing the people from the pulpit." He goes on to say that Paul's point of concern here is decorum, and "If that is secured, Paul requires nothing farther."

In his comments on vs 5, Calvin insists that women must have their heads covered, to show their subjection. He goes further to insist that it must be a covering in addition to her hair, because some want to argue that it is a woman's hair that is her covering.

According to Calvin, the entire section is concerned with decorum or propriety in the church, and as long as decorum is preserved, the end is accomplished. However, he then seems to become inconsistent, by saying that the man may in fact have his head covered, as long as it is not intended to be "an emblem of authority intermediate and interposed." But the woman must have her head covered. The covering is a sign of her subjection, and apparently for Calvin this was not possible without a visible covering over the woman's hair.

This seeming inconsistency may account for the difference between Calvin and the Geneva Bible on this matter.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Head Coverings: Part 1 Geneva Bible

I was asked by someone recently where the current emphasis on head coverings for women in Reformed churches is coming from. For those who don't know, head coverings for women were standard in Catholicism until Vatican II. I remember as a child most women in our UPCUSA church wore hats. What I don't know is whether that was more because of theology, or because of style. I suspect the latter, but cannot prove it. After all, those were also the days when men wore hats all the time outdoors, but always took them off indoors, unlike today when the "gimme" ball cap is ubiquitous. But I had always mentally associated the "head coverings for women" with certain of the more sectarian fundamentalist groups than with Reformed churches. So over the next few posts, I'm going to attempt an unscientific examination of the issue through various Reformed commentaries. I'll start with the notes of the Geneva Bible, which has recently been reprinted, thanks to the commitment of the folks at Tolle Lege Press.

The Geneva notes on 1 Cor 11:4-5 read as follows: Hereof he gathereth that if men do either pray or preach in public assemblies having their heads covered (which was then a sign of subjection) they did as it were spoil themselves of their dignity, against God's ordinance. It appeareth that this was a political law serving only for the circumstances of the time that Paul lived in , by this reason, because in these our days for a man to speak bareheaded in an assembly, is a sign of subjection. And in the like sort he concludeth, that women which show themselves in public and ecclesiastical assemblies without the sign and token of their subjection, that is to say, uncovered, shame themselves.

Interpreting these terse notes, I think the following may be fairly said. First, the signs of subjection were a part of the political economy of the day, and these signs may change, and in fact have changed. In Paul's day, a man wearing a head covering in a public assembly showed himself to be in subjection. In the days of the Geneva Bible, a man appearing in a public assembly without a head covering showed himself to be in subjection. Hence, women ought to appear in public assembly in such a manner as to show themselves in subjection, consistent with whatever the common practice is at the time. It does not appear that the Geneva notes can be read in such a way as to argue for a perpetual necessity for women to wear head coverings in public worship.