Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Wurds and Frases

One of my largest pet peeves is people who take snippets out of the Bible to make a point, or to attempt to win an argument. As a devout atheist friend likes to remind me, you can make any argument from somewhere in the Bible, and he’s right. By picking and choosing words and phrases you can support abortion, war, and whether Christ is a democrat or a republican.

Back in the 70’s a popular idea among western Christians was a scripturally driven problem resolution. Everything imaginable could be solve simply by consulting scriptures. Want to buy a car? See what scriptures say about financing. Is your girl your mate? Consult the scriptures. There was even a practice whereby you could divine God’s will for you on a particular subject or day by placing the Bible on its spine, removing your hands to allow the book to open to a page predetermined by destiny, covering your eyes with your hand, then placing a finger on the page and reading the selected verse.

In university we had a humorous story about this practice taken to its extreme. A man was in deep despair, he had lost his home to a fire, his car was stolen, he was fired from his job, his wife was unfaithful and left him, taking the kids and their money. In total desperation he took his Bible, prayed to God for inspiration, performed the above steps, and read the verse: Mt 27:5 “he departed the temple, and went and hanged himself.” Aghast, he couldn’t believe that was right, so he repeated the procedure. This time his finger landed on Lk 10:37 “Go and do likewise.”

The point is, before quoting scripture know the entire text, don’t use it if it doesn’t apply. Also, check the interpretation of your version of the Bible. There are a multitude number of errors throughout any translation, both accidental and intentional.

Which brings me to part two: make sure what you are using is really what the Bible intends. No translation is perfect, and no translator is perfect, even committees. Errors enter into the Bible in many ways: lack of understanding of the original language and times; desires to make text more readable (versus more accurate); de-genderization; even the desire to keep text that is known to be wrong, simply because people are comfortable with it.

So, what difference can a word make, and what do I mean by “people are comfortable with it”? Here are two example that have a minor and major effect, respectively.

Everyone knows that Jesus’ father Joseph was a carpenter, after all it says it right in the Gospels. Mark 6:3 reads, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Well, not quite. The Greek text uses the word “τεκτων”, which simply means “craftsman”, not “carpenter”. Joseph, and Jesus, could have been carpenters, or masons, leatherworkers, etc. In the Old Testament,1 Sam 13:19 it is used to refer to a blacksmith skilled in the making of weapons. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if they were carpenters or stone workers? No, not really, but there are instances where a single mistranslated word can make a huge difference.

One such instance is in the story of Noah. Everyone knows the story of Noah, God called him to build an ark to save all of the animals because God was going to wipe out all life with a worldwide flood. Except the Bible doesn’t say anything about flooding the whole world. In Genesis when God creates the earth the word used is cosmos (κοσμοσ) Gen 2:1 “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.” The word used in the flood narrative is γην, which translates to “land”, or “the land”. While this might seem the same, one need to keep in mind that this was at a time before Israel, in the region of Mesopotamia, which is Greek for “the land between two rivers”. People settled in the Mesopotamia river valley because it was so fertile; it was fertile because, like the Nile, it flooded annually, with major floods occurring several times according to archaeological evidence.

Understand, in this treatise I am not making a case for or against the common perception of a worldwide flood. My point here is to show the issues that can occur, and be perpetuated, by a simple mistranslation of a single word – γην as “earth” instead of “land”, and our continued desire to keep the mistranslation because we are more comfortable with it.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Modern Theologian

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