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Darrell L. Bock's picture

Responding to Newsweek's Take on the Bible, Part 2 Translation Issues and Constantine

We now tackle the next section in Eichenwald's article on Translation Issues and Constantine's impact.

•On translation differences: The reasons translations differ is not because Koine, as Eichenwald claims, can’t be expressed in English, but because (1) one has choices to make about some terms, (2) Greek order is more flexible than English (for NT), and (3) there are often a variety of ways to express the same idea (as translators often have good choices between synonyms). Beyond this sometimes there is a real question on (4) how to best translate a term to get the contextual meaning and (5) there can be differences in the manuscripts that make a difference. There are cases where theological choices are made that have an influence, but this is not as common as Eichenwald suggests nor even the main reason for most differences we see.

•On KJV: Eichenwald is right that the manuscript base for the KJV was not the best (based on what we now know). But this is another misleading direction. The translations we now have do a better job of getting us to that more original text (which I remind readers Eichenwald questions we have access to but has to have some idea what it is to make his assessment of the KJV). More than that, even these differences have little impact on the major themes the Bible teaches.

•On Philippians 2: Eichenwald engages in a selective use of the context to appeal to the idea the only issue in 2:6-11 is rendering “form” as image of God versus God. In fact, in context we have “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” and the structure of the whole passage is a reverse parabola. These contextual features are what a translator considers as he or she decides between possible rendering options, looking for the best specifically appropriate renderings for the given context. This is not manipulation for doctrinal reasons. It is reading the text with literary sensitivity.

•On the Trinity: Eichenwald asks, "Where is there one text that points to it?" Matthew 28:20 has baptism- a sacred rite- in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Remember that Christianity grew out of a Jewish movement that held to one God. Matthew, the writer of this gospel, was a Jew. To attribute a religious rite in this manner is to point to divine authority and authorized action. The three persons bear equal authority here for the divine act.

• On Massacres, Texts, and Constantine. This is another distorted presentation. Yes, Christians did battle to the death with those they regarded as heretics at certain points of history (though not in the earleist centuries) and sometimes it was over theology. Other times it was politics and ethnicity that was the issue, as is common today in contexts where religion is not in play. This is a regrettable feature of the church’s history. Eichenwald is correct to point it out.

•Those Other Gospels: The suggestion that there were lots of texts out there kind of randomly chosen from to make up the canon is another misleading discussion. The groups alluded to did exist and they did appeal to other texts, but these texts had less of a claim to be rooted in the origin of the movement than those in the canon. These groups were mostly in a minority and often represented a kind of syncretism (as was the case with Gnostics) that those who defended what became the canon felt was a severe distortion of the original faith.

Now it also is true that Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity did solidify the Christian movement and that power was wielded at times ruthlessly. Ruling in the ancient world was brutal business (as is life in parts of the Middle East or Eastern Europe or parts of Africa or Asia are today). Its world is not our world. But Constantine had NOTHING to do with which books were accepted into the canon. The council of Nicea, the one Constantine called, did not even discuss the contents of the New Testament! This false presentation of history has continued to make the public rounds since The DaVinci Code. It is best dropped as a historical claim. All such claims about the canon of the Bible and Constantine also ignore the evidence from Irenaeus that shows most books in our New Testament were being used and recognized 125 years before Constantine. This list includes the four gospels, Acts. Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, and 1 John.

•On the Arian dispute and the Trinity: This is a well-known doctrinal dispute of the fourth century. As with many theological disputes, each side often can assemble texts to claim support for its views. However the question is which view among the proposed options has the most widespread textual support. In the case of this dispute, the Christian idea emerging out of a monotheistic Judaism in the earliest Christian texts carried the weight. This included the ideas that (1) one could sit with God in heaven (as Jesus claimed), (2) share his divine authority in executing salvation (as Jesus claimed) and (3) be on the creator side of creator-creation discussions (see John 1:1-3; 1 Cor 8:4-6; the phrase first born in some texts speaks of rank, not biology,as the first born becomes king in a family dynasty, see Psalm 89:27).

These very early teachings led the council to opt for Jesus as God and not a creature. It was these texts Arians struggled to explain causing them to lose the deliberations at the council. Eichenwald again selectively cites 1 Cor 8, noting God is called the Father and Jesus the Lord but ignores that this is a rewriting of the sacred Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4 which is the creedal statement of monotheistic Judaism and where both the idea of God and Lord are attached to the one Creator God. Eichenwald’s half statements run through the entire piece and leave a misimpression that his biblical evidence is strong. The key is found in the rest of the story Eichenwald fails to tell. Other places, such as the claim the doctrine relies on bad translation from John’s gospel, do not even state the objection to the orthodox view correctly. It is 1 John 5:7 with an explicit trinitarian remark that many question (probably appropriately) as not authentic. However clear texts from the gospel of John with no dispute about manuscript readings or bad translations led to the affirmation of the doctrine as what Scripture teaches, as well as the themes noted already.

So this second section also yields little that can be sustained in terms of persuasive argumentation. It fails to appreciate how translations work and poorly reads the early history of the church. The one thing that is worth noting is that the violence tied to some events in the early church is something to be recognized, faced up to, and avoided.

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