Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:1-3

Matthew 5:1-3

When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to teach them by saying: 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
(NET Bible)

An unexpected opening

In the concluding verse of Matthew chapter 4, we found that large crowds (4:25) from such distant places as Syria and Jerusalem accompanied Jesus. They had heard that he was preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing (4:23).

But gathering crowds and leading them was not the mission Jesus had been given. When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain (5:1). Since Galilee has no tall mountains, you should think in terms of the Texas hill country — that kind of mountain.

Whenever we read a literary work like Matthews Gospel, it is sensible to probe whether simple words may conceal unexpected yet intentional connections. That is the case with he sat down (5:1). The Greek verb is used eight times in Matthew, and in most cases it involves sitting in a position of authority or judgment.[1] That will certainly prove to be the situation on this day. Perhaps anticipating Jesus, his disciples gather around him. But, exactly what is a disciple?

When you recall that some of Jesus disciples turned away from him (John 6:66), it becomes obvious that disciple is not a synonym for believer. We will contrast discipleship under Jesus with other forms of first-century discipleship. How does discipleship to Jesus contrast with the disciples of the Jewish rabbis or to Greek masters such as Socrates?

Allegiance to a rabbi meant adhering to his view of the Torah, the instruction revealed by Moses in Genesis to Deuteronomy. Allegiance to Socrates was shown by adherence to his ideas or his philosophy. TDNT says: In contrast to both, Jesus binds exclusively to himself. The rabbi and the Greek philosopher are at one in representing a specific cause. Jesus offers himself. This obviously gives a completely different turn to the whole relation of the disciples to him.[2] Discipleship under Jesus involves personal commitment to him and the acceptance of his teachings that results in obedience.

Of course, Matt. 5:1 begins the famous Sermon on the Mount, which extends through 7:29. I agree with Turner when he says: The sermon amounts to personal ethics for the followers of Jesus. . . . The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus authoritative teaching about the way believers should live today.[3]

Today we will only put a toe in the deep waters of the Sermon by considering 5:3. Blessed are the poor in spirit illustrates that the sharply paradoxical character of most of [the Sermons] recommendations reverses the conventional values of society.[4] If we called for a show of hands from all who strive to be poor in spirit, the resulting inner tension would show how counter-cultural this is! See Ps. 37:14-17, James 2:5 and Prov. 16:18-19 for further ideas on being poor in spirit.

Turner correctly says, To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge ones total dependence on God for everything, for righteousness . . . as well as sustenance.[5]

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] References are Matt. 13:48; 19:28; 20:21, 23; 23:2; 25:31.

[2] TDNT, 4:447, mathotes, disciple, q.v.

[3] David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) 144.

[4] R.T. France,The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 159.

[5] Turner, Matthew, 149.

The Sermon on the Mount: Approach to Interpretation

This post begins an occasional series on The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). After today’s introduction, you may expect Bible exposition. I sometimes use the acronym “SOM” to refer to the Sermon on the Mount.

I am indebted to R.T. France for the idea of calling Matthew chapters 5–7 “The Discourse on Discipleship” rather than the more common title “The Sermon on the Mount.”[1] R.T. France correctly points out that Jesus was speaking to those who had responded to his preaching that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near. I will generally stick to the traditional title (“The Sermon on the Mount”), but France’s title would have been better.

How the Sermon on the Mount affects you

It is one thing to title Jesus’ remarks and quite another to figure out how they fit into the lives of Christians today. How did Jesus intend for us to interpret them? To answer that question is not easy! NT scholar Craig Blomberg says, “Perhaps no other religious discourse in the history of humanity has attracted the attention which has been devoted to the Sermon on the Mount.”[2] Out of this vast consideration, at least 36 different views have emerged on the sermon’s message.

Perhaps because Stanley Toussaint is a pastor as well as a New Testament scholar, I prefer his simpler overview of six viewpoints[3]:

1. The Soteriological [Salvation] Approach: People may receive salvation by governing their lives through the principles of the SOM. This idea was once popular among theological liberals, but it had been abandoned by 1980 for the simple reason that, if it were true, no one could be saved!

2. The Sociological Approach: Society would be ideal if guided by the principles of the SOM. This idea fails in that there is no evidence that Jesus was trying to modify society. Several famous people have tried to implement parts of the SOM, though not all recognized Jesus as the Son of God.[4] However, this world-system will be destroyed and replaced by God, not freshened up.

3. The Lutheran Approach: Toussaint calls it “The Penitential Approach.” This view holds that the purpose of the SOM is to make people conscious of their sin and drive them to God. But the Lutheran Approach does not recognize that the SOM is addressed to disciples; thus, he is speaking to people who have already repented and come to God. Jesus says they are salt and light (5:13-14). Still, the SOM does heighten awareness of sin, and that part of this viewpoint has merit.

4. The Millennial or Kingdom Approach: This view says that the way of life presented is applicable to the future Millennial Kingdom, in which Jesus will rule this world (Rev. 20:4). But, to say the least, it would be odd for Jesus to tell his disciples to pray for the coming of the kingdom (Matt. 6:28) when it was already going on. Why would disciples be persecuted and reviled (Matt. 5:11-12) in the future kingdom? Problems abound!

5. The Church Approach: Toussaint calls it “The Ecclesiastical Approach.” The idea here is that the SOM is the rule of life for the church. However, Toussaint correctly points out that the church is not mentioned until Matthew 16:18 and does not exist until Acts 2, following the resurrection of Jesus. So, even though this view is popular and promising, it has a timing problem in NT history.

6. The Interim Approach: The idea of the Interim Approach is that the SOM presents an ethic for the time preliminary to the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom. This concept improves upon #5 by eliminating direct dependence on the presence of the church. That said, SOM also applies to the church throughout the period of its existence. In fairness, I must add that Toussaint would not agree with my application of the SOM to the church and would say that I have modified the Interim Approach as he originally described it.[5]

So, I have used the Interim Approach as the interpretive grid for explaining the SOM, and have taken the position that the principles Jesus gives are directly applicable to the church, even though the church did not exist when Jesus first taught these ideas.

My next post will explain the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, a section often called The Beatitudes.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 153.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 93.

[3] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 86-94.

[4] Four men who tried to use SOM in whole or part: Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

[5] Toussaint got the idea of an interim ethic from Albert Schweitzer and then modified it.

 

NIV 2011: How much paraphrase is too much?

Some popular English Bible translations do a better job than others in maintaining fidelity to the original text of Scripture. As you know, the Old Testament was recorded in biblical Hebrew (except for a few parts of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic), and the New Testament was recorded in Koine Greek.

In my view, the following principles should be applied to Bible translation:

  • Idioms have to be paraphrased to make any sense at all.
  • Ancient writing style which does not involve idioms should be translated without paraphrase; just allow us to listen to an ancient conversation!
  • Biblical metaphors should be translated rather than being “clarified” by replacing the figure of speech with its concrete meaning; such replacement is paraphrase, not translation.

In each case below, you will find the Greek or Hebrew text followed by five English translations: English Standard Version (ESV), New English Translation (NET), New International Version (NIV 2011), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), and New Living Translation (NLT). In general, this order measures the tendency to paraphrase, with ESV doing so the least paraphrasing and NLT doing so the most. NET, NIV 2011, and CSB are all about the same in terms of tendency to paraphrase. That is a move to a more literal position for NIV 2011 in comparison to NIV 1984. I consider that a real improvement!

In the examples below, the underlined Greek text is idiomatic, and I have bold-faced the portion of each English translation that tries to express that idiom.

Idioms (must be paraphrased for comprehension)

BNT Matthew 1:18 ??? ?? ????? ??????? ? ??????? ????? ??. (????????????? ??? ?????? ????? ?????? ?? ?????, ???? ? ????????? ?????? ?????? ?? ?????? ?????? ?? ????????? ?????.

A raw translation would be “have in the womb.” The Greek phrase is an idiom: “?? ?????? ????? be pregnant” BDAG-3, the standard Greek lexicon.

ESV Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

NET Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

NIV 2011 Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

CSB Matthew 1:18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

NLT Matthew 1:18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

BNT John 2:4 [???] ????? ???? ? ??????·?? ???? ??? ???, ?????; ???? ???? ? ??? ???.

The Greek phrase is idiomatic. A raw translation might be: “What to me and to you?” [NET Bible Notes]

ESV John 2:4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

NET John 2:4 Jesus replied, “Woman, why are you saying this to me? My time has not yet come.”

NIV 2011 John 2:4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

CSB John 2:4 “What has this concern of yours to do with Me, woman?” Jesus asked. “My hour has not yet come.”

NLT John 2:4 “Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

COMMENT: Oddly enough, NLT is the only English text that retains Jesus’ question about the relevance of this situation to both Mary and Jesus by combining them in the pronoun “our.” All the others focus only on Jesus.

BNT John 10:24 ????????? ??? ????? ?? ???????? ??? ?????? ????·??? ???? ??? ????? ???? ??????; ?? ?? ?? ? ???????, ???? ???? ????????.

A raw translation might be “Until when do you raise our soul?” The Greek phrase is an idiom. “to keep in a state of uncertainty about an outcome, keep someone in suspense, fig. ext. of [meaning] 1.” BDAG-3, the standard lexicon.

ESV John 10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

NET John 10:24 The Jewish leaders surrounded him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

NIV 2011 John 10:24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

COMMENT: NIV 2011 adds the words “who were there,” but why? Only the people who were there could surround Jesus, so why add those words? On the positive side, NIV 2011 substitutes “Messiah” for “Christ.”

CSB John 10:24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and asked, “How long are You going to keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

NLT John 10:24 The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Ancient Style (leave it alone!)

WTT 1 Kings 2:10 ???????????? ?????? ????????????

ESV 1 Kings 2:10 Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

NET 1 Kings 2:10 Then David passed away and was buried in the city of David.

COMMENT: NET takes out the more metaphorical idea of “slept with his fathers” and replaces it with the sterile contemporary euphemism “passed away.” The Hebrew original maintains the continuity of David with his ancestors, but the NET takes it away. How does that make matters better? It is hard to believe such measures were necessary to help a contemporary audience understand that David had died when the same verse says he “was buried”!

NIV 2011 1 Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.

COMMENT: This substitution of “ancestors” for “fathers” is the result of NIV 2011’s use of new research on English word usage. This is a good change.

CSB 1 Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

NLT 1 Kings 2:10 Then David died and was buried with his ancestors in the City of David.

COMMENT: In reference to this verse, NLT has the following misguided boast in its preface: “Only the New Living Translation clearly translates the real meaning of the Hebrew idiom ‘slept with his fathers’ into contemporary English.” (Introduction to NLT, page xlii). This is what software developers call “turning a bug into a feature”! What a selling point!

BNT Romans 13:4 ???? ??? ???????? ????? ??? ??? ?? ??????. ??? ?? ?? ????? ?????, ?????· ?? ??? ???? ??? ???????? ?????· ???? ??? ???????? ????? ??????? ??? ????? ?? ?? ????? ?????????.

ESV Romans 13:4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

NET Romans 13:4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.

NIV 2011 Romans 13:4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

CSB Romans 13:4 For government is God’s servant to you for good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.

NLT Romans 13:4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.

COMMENT: This verse displays the NLT’s pride in removing metaphors that they believe are “difficult for contemporary readers to understand” (NLT preface). Apparently some of us are considered so ignorant as to think the authorities were going to pat us on the back with the sword. So, the paraphrase had to make it crystal clear that the intent was punishment. Of course, the sword finds little use in 2011, so it had to go too. Calling this a “translation” is a real stretch. [Just to be clear, the Greek words for have, power and punish do not occur in the Greek text.]

In conclusion, I do not argue that any of the changes shown above affect doctrines of Christian faith. But paraphrasing biblical texts that are not idiomatic is an undesirable translation practice. If the translator believes more “clarity” is needed, put it in a footnote!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

NIV 2011 and Perfection

The new NIV 2011 shows its value in the insightful translation of Philippians 3:12, but it shows no improvement in Matthew 5:48.  In Philippians 3:12, the Greek verb in question, teleio?, is frequently — and wrongly — translated as if it involved some form of perfection. It is my contention that the concept of perfection presented in other translations of Philippians 3:12 came not from the Bible or from Greek and Hebrew but from philosophy. Christian theology has a long history of saying that God is perfect, and that has led to the contention that those who become mature in Christ are being made “perfect.”

The original basis in the Bible for this idea of “perfection” seems to come from Matthew 5:48. Next I will analyze that verse.

Matthew 5:48

For Matt. 5:48, NIV 2011 offers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In Matthew 5:48, the English word perfect simply does not fit either the underlying Greek adjective (teleios) or this context. So, how did we wind up with a misleading English word in so many translations?

Perfect (Matt. 5:48) was the English word chosen by William Tyndale in the very first English translation of the New Testament (1526) based on the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale did not have a Greek New Testament to guide his work because they were not published in Europe until 1534.[1] About 85 percent of Tyndale’s popular English translation became part of the Authorized Version, which we call the King James Bible, and the translation perfect in Matt. 5:48 was part of that incorporated material.

Bible translator William Mounce explains the second factor that often prevents English translation improvements: “The argument [in the translation committee] was, ‘This is such a well-known verse that we can’t change it.’”[2] [Mounts was not speaking here about Matt. 5:48 in particular or about NIV 2011.] Such forces against change are strong in the Sermon on the Mount!

New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg puts us onto the right plan for Matt. 5:48 when he says, “‘Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits . . . . Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will — to become more like him.”[3] The key idea here is completeness, or loving without limits. God’s willingness to love even his enemies sets the example for the disciples of Jesus. Just as the Father is whole and undivided in his love, so must Jesus’ disciples be!

The interpretation just given makes sense out of the word therefore (Matt. 5:48a). Verse 48 is a conclusion based on what has been taught previously. The Gentiles and tax collectors love their own kind (Matt. 5:46-47), but we must look to God for our model of love, not our peers.

In spite of the fact that virtually all modern commentators agree on what has been said above about the correct interpretation of Matt. 5:48, it is not hard to find someone who teaches sinless perfection as the command of Christ. But that idea is very hard to reconcile with the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in which they pray for the forgiveness of the debt (of sin) between themselves and God (Matt. 6:12). Why would a perfect disciple need to ask forgiveness? Even stronger are John’s words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, ESV).

I need to address a potential criticism. Someone might claim that I am teaching that God is not perfect. Far from it! The Bible amply demonstrates that God needs no improvement or development. What I do say is that the concept of God’s perfection or our own perfection as disciples is not what Jesus was saying here. Instead, he was holding up God’s character as the example of love for his disciples to follow. God loves the just and the unjust, and so must we.

Philippians 3:12

BNT Philippians 3:12 ??? ??? ??? ?????? ? ??? ???????????, ????? ?? ?? ??? ????????, ??? ? ??? ??????????? ??? ??????? [?????].

The standard Greek lexicon, BDAG-3, offers this definition for the bold-face Greek verb teleio?:  ”to overcome or supplant an imperfect state of things by one that is free fr. objection, bring to an end, bring to its goal/accomplishment.” Happily, this is the definition used by NIV 2011 in Phil. 3:12. Compare the following translations (“2011” is NIV 2011, and NIV is the 1984 version):

ESV Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

2011 Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

NIV Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

NLT Philippians 3:12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.

I congratulate NIV 2011 for making this improvement in Philippians 3:12 and hope that they will eventually fix Matthew 5:48, though I’m not holding my breath!

[1] The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, S.L. Greenslade, Ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 61.

[2] William D. Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 38.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 115.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. Material on Matthew 5:48 presented with permission of Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas, which originally commissioned the work.

NIV 2011 — The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

—Before describing some issues I have with NIV 2011, I want to say that NIV 2011 is one of the top three English translations now available. It may even become my favorite, though currently I am using it in conjunction with the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New English Translation (NET). Time will tell as I translate more passages and compare NIV 2011 to the others in many types of biblical texts.

Before I begin, here is what The Committee on Bible Translation humbly says in the preface of NIV 2011:

The committee has again been reminded that every human effort is flawed — including this revision of the NIV. We trust however, that many will find in it an improved representation of the Word of God, through which they hear his call to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and to service in his kingdom.

I have found both flaws and improvements in NIV 2011, but more improvements! Critiques, such as this one, may also be flawed!

The Good

Corrections to NIV 1984

I am ecstatic with the decision to replace “sinful nature” (NIV 1984) with “flesh” (NIV 2011) as the translation of the Greek noun sarx in most places. Primarily this affects Romans (e.g., Rom. 8:5) and Galatians and greatly influences our understanding of sin’s influence within both believers and unbelievers. Concerning the old translation “sinful nature,” The Committee on Bible Translation says: “This expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx.”[1]

Since I have been warning against that compartment-model for years while watching people look down to see “sinful nature” right there in their NIV Bible, I am delighted with this change.

Another favorable trend is the decision to make NIV 2011 a translation that puts fewer interpretations into the biblical text and leaves the burden of interpretation on the reader where it belongs. The sarx decision falls into this category, but another sad case within NIV 1984 is the one I will use to illustrate a positive correction made by NIV 2011.

In John 18:36–37, Jesus is being interrogated by Pilate, or so Pilate believes. The crucial point comes when Pilate, the Roman governor, exclaims, “You are a king, then!” (John 18:37a). When Jesus answers we see two different translations:

“You are right in saying I am a king.” (NIV 1984, John 18:37b)

“You say that I am a king.” (NIV 2011, John 18:37b)

There is simply no possible way to get the NIV 1984 translation from this Greek:

σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι. (John 18:37b)

First, I congratulate the NIV 2011 team for fixing this error, which not only failed to represent the Greek but was also blind to the political situation in which Jesus spoke to Pilate. For Jesus to explicitly admit that he is a king of any sort would be to agree with the charges brought by the Jewish leaders that he was setting himself us as a king in opposition to Caesar (Luke 23:2).

How did this mistake occur? Obviously, I was not there, but I suspect that it involves the translation theory employed by the NIV — an approach known as Dynamic Equivalence (“DE” from here on), sometimes also called functional equivalence. The Committee on Bible Translation says, “The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience[.]”[2] Clearly, the key word is “experience.” The big problem is that we have no way of knowing exactly how the original audience experienced the Word; we have to guess.

In another post I have criticized the assumption by The Committee on Bible Translation that the original hearers experienced instant clarity when they heard God’s Word for the first time in their own language. To give us the same alleged experience in 2011 (or 1984), as the principles of DE require, means that strong measures must be taken to remove ambiguity and make everything crystal clear. When Jesus made his ambiguous response to Pilate about kingship, that simply would not fit the DE mold, so Jesus was edited to make a more definite statement about kingship. This is a kind of “clarity” we do not need in Bible translation!

All this was done in good faith with the best intentions, and I am not saying anything negative about the motivation or spiritual integrity of those involved in the process. But when good-hearted people employ a flawed approach, this is the result. NIV 2011 fixed the error.

Updated Pronouns

Another positive development in NIV 2011 — and this one is subtle when you read the biblical text — is the use of a careful linguistic analysis to update the use of English pronouns to match current English usage. For example, Mark 4:25 now says, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (NIV 2011). Older grammatical style, such as used in NIV 1984, says, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Mark 4:25).

Another example of the pronoun changes may be seen in James 2:15–16, which NIV 2011 presents like this: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” See how the italicized pronouns have changed by looking at NIV 1984: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15–16).

Those of us who have seen a few more revolutions of the earth around the sun may wince at this grammar, but it is futile to fight linguistic shifts.

The Bad

The following remarks are based on Matthew 28:1–10, describing the miraculous events surrounding the discovery of the empty tomb and a climactic meeting with the resurrected Jesus. Read the NIV 2011 translation here.

The Greek particle idou occurs 62 times in Matthew’s Gospel and is generally untranslated by both NIV and NET. NIV gives no explanation of this practice, but NET says, “The Greek word ἰδοὺ (idou) has not been translated because it has no exact English equivalent here but adds interest and emphasis.” Perhaps one of my readers can explain how idou can “add interest and emphasis” when it is not translated into English!

The Greek particle idou is difficult to translate, but that is mainly true when the translator is trying to make everyone talk in a suburban-America-in-2011 dialect. No one in my hometown will say “behold” or “see!” this week. Of course, these biblical events did not occur in my hometown this week! So, why should they sound as if they did?

BDAG-3, the standard Greek lexicon, defines idou by saying: “prompter of attention, behold, look, see. Like (Hebrew hinneh) it sometimes serves to enliven a narrative . . . . with emphasis on the size or importance of something (frequently omitted in translation, but with some loss of meaning).” You can guess that I really like that “loss of meaning” phrase! That neatly summarizes my whole point.

Here are two things to consider:

  • The events being described are the most exceptional in all human history.
  • DE promises us that it will deliver the same impact that the original listeners would have felt; that is its alleged genius. How can they possibly punt on conveying the enlivened feeling of emphasis that idou is designed to create? I thought this was exactly where we might expect some help by the paraphrasing nature of DE principles.

That is the case for dialing up the temperature of the text in Matthew 28:1–10; idou is used four times in this brief span, which is an exceptional frequency. The amazing events taking place are exactly the point of the passage. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Soldiers keel over in a dead faint, earthquakes pop, and an angel descends from heaven and takes dramatic action. The angel uses idou twice in emphasizing his words to the women, and then the resurrected Jesus appears! We cannot ho-hum our way through this scene. Our familiarity with what happened has dulled our senses!

The Ugly

Adding or Subtracting Words

It is pleasing to say that NIV 2011 has very little to put into this category. Generally, a problem I have with English translations based on the dynamic equivalence (DE) philosophy is that they unnecessarily add words that are not in the Greek text of the New Testament or they covertly fail to translate words that are in the Greek text. The NET Bible does a marvelous job giving notes about the instances in which they have done one of these two things, but NIV 2011 leaves the reader in blissful ignorance.

Consider Romans 8:34, which NIV 2011 presents this way: “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Where did the italicized words come from? Certainly not from the Greek text of the New Testament! This is the kind of perverse result that DE can produce.

It can be argued that the above addition is harmless. I do not think that is the case. Is “no one” theologically true? Consider the trial and crucifixion of Jesus: God was certainly for him, but that did not prevent his legal condemnation by Pilate and his religious condemnation by his enemies. It is difficult to see how “no one” is an accurate description for that situation. What Paul is saying in Romans 8:34 is not that “no one” will condemn the Christian; he is saying that their condemnation will fall away or be refuted by the divine mercy we enjoy through union with Christ. Adding words creates a problem.

Foreclosing Possible Interpretations by Making Interpretive Choices

Remember that DE translations seek to make everything really clear, even things that are murky. Consider Genesis 6:3, which says, “Then the LORD said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’” As an alternative to “mortal,” NIV 2011 offers “corrupt” in a marginal note.

God is speaking about his disgust over  the violence and sin rampant in the world before the flood of Noah. The issue is the meaning chosen for the Hebrew word translated “mortal” by NIV 2011. The Hebrew noun here is bashar, and you may look high and low in the standard Hebrew lexicon, but you will not find “mortal” as one of the lexical choices in its field of meaning. So, how did we get “mortal”? By interpretation! In picking that one, the translators rejected others that may be preferable.

From the array of possible meanings for this verse, the translators selected one and then created a novel meaning for bashar to match. That is allowable, even necessary, in cases where a Hebrew word is rarely used and its meaning is less certain. But bashar occurs 294 times in the Old Testament and 33 times in Genesis alone, so its range of lexical meaning is well established.

The safest path is to put a basic meaning for bashar into the biblical text and put the various possible interpretations into a marginal note or footnote. The safe choice for bashar in Gen. 6:3 is “flesh,” a meaning firmly established in the standard Hebrew lexicon and the one chosen by the ESV for this verse.

Of course, the safe choice “flesh” leaves the reader wondering what sense of that word is meant. Some possibilities are “mortal,” “corrupt” or “ruined.” Which one is right? [I personally prefer “ruined” because of Gen. 6:12.] To answer that question is hard work and may leave you wondering if you have taken the word correctly — that is, you may wonder whether you have selected the right sense. But here is the difference: at least you know there is a question here and some uncertainty in meaning.

But I have already said that DE translations of the Bible abhor uncertainty and ambiguity. They are eager to confront each of these interpretive questions and resolve them with a clear, scholarly choice and to put that choice directly into the translation rather than in an explanatory footnote. Now the reader does not have to wonder or work. The reader doesn’t know!

It amazes me that Christians are so laid back about this practice. If I told the Christians here in Texas that the state government had made these interpretive choices for them in preparing their English Bible translation, they would surround the capital in short order!

What is the solution to this problem? Use a more literal translation like the ESV alongside NIV 2011. Consult both in doing your Bible study. If you can do so, add the NET Bible into the mix. Be willing to think and pray in moving closer to God through study of his Word.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” page 8.

[2] “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” page 1.

 

A few words about judging others …

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “You have no right to judge!” Sometimes they quote Jesus as their authority in saying so.

Yet all of us make judgments about people in the common course of life. We do it almost unconsciously when we look for a “good” doctor or want a “dependable” babysitter. In business, friendship, or marriage, people want someone they can trust; that means that some others cannot be trusted. And parents must often decide which of their children is telling the truth. So, what exactly did Jesus say about judging?

Right before Jesus made his famous statement about judging, he said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). So, the context of his statement about judging others was one of showing mercy to others!

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37–38)

In Luke 6:37 we run smack into the main problem: What did Jesus mean when he said, “Do not judge”? That question can be readily solved, if we assume that Jesus knew we would need further elaboration and that he gave it immediately. In other words, when Jesus said, “Do not condemn,” he was explaining what he meant by saying, “Do not judge.” Believers are not to judge in the sense of condemning another person with harshness and finality.

Matthew also describes the Sermon on the Mount and presents what Jesus said about judging others. Right after Jesus spoke about judging, he gave his disciples another command that made it obvious that they would not be able to avoid evaluating other people. He said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6, italics added).

Jesus wasn’t talking about house pets and barnyard animals; he was describing certain kinds of people. To follow this command, his disciples would have to be discerning and make value judgments about people, distinguishing the “dogs” and “pigs” from more receptive people. By using those terms, Jesus was referring to people who treated the Word of God and the miracles of his Son with contempt.

So, Jesus was not saying that we can never evaluate other people or form opinions about them. He knew that his disciples would have to do that. That’s simply part of life. But the spirit in which it is done makes a great difference; the Lord requires that mercy be infused into our judgments.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Excerpted from The Path to the Cross (forthcoming).

Taking Sides: Joining Jesus When It’s Hard

As I was doing my new Bible reading plan this morning, I was reading about the time when Israel was camped below Mount Sinai and Moses returned from meeting God on the mountain. Consider this bracing passage in Exodus 31:19–29:

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” [END]

Clearly, God was not playing games! As believers, we are compelled to acknowledge that life is God-given, and he can also take that life whenever he chooses. Set that issue aside and consider that this story is about taking sides. Who is on the Lord’s side? One answer, based on this story, is that those “running wild” in defiance of God were rejected by him. Another answer is that those who were willing to serve God no matter the cost were blessed.

A more personal question is this: would you have stood with the Levites on that day? Jesus challenged the following crowd in a similar way in Luke 14:25–27:

25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus challenges all to take a side! Following Jesus may cost a lot. The cross that we carry is a symbol of our death, and death severs all relationships except one.

To deal with a distraction, the word translated “hate” (Luke 14:26) by NIV2011 might better be rendered “disregard” according to the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG-3).

So, the Luke 14 passage ties to Exodus 31 in regard to taking sides. But I think Exodus 31:27 may relate to another enigmatic thing Jesus told his disciples: “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36, NIV2011). Both passages feature a sword. The swords in Exodus are literal, but I think the ones in Luke 22 are metaphorical. Jesus is telling his disciples to get ready to take a stand for God; the decisive hour is upon them, and they will be forced to take a side at risk of their lives.

The idea of taking sides may also explain Matthew 10:34, where Jesus  says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” You may have other passages to suggest as well.

When all is done, the message is clear: Stand with Jesus, no matter what!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.