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Thursday, February 1, 2024

The complex problem of Bible translation

 


“The only real Bible is the King James!”

People have strong opinions about Bible translation. Many have a favorite. Some practically worship one translation over another. Others hold that translating the Bible at all is wrong.

When some Mormon boys came to my door – without Bibles – I handed them one of mine to answer my question about the scriptural foundation of their work. They refused, until I gave them a KJV.

“Why only that one?” I asked.

“Because it’s authorized!” one of the boys replied. And he was serious…

There is no question that there are some bad translations of the Bible. But there are plenty of good ones. There's no ‘perfect’ translation of the Bible in English. Some are better than others, but none is perfect.

Whether you believe the Bible or not, at one time mankind all spoke the same language. (You can read more about that in the column I wrote about the history of language, here.) In the Bible account, the job of Translator became a necessity about 4,000 years ago, shortly after God himself confused people’s languages to force their compliance when they rebelled against his order to spread out. (Genesis 11:1-9)

When Abraham entered the land of Canaan, there’s no mention of a language barrier; hundreds of years later, when the spies sent into the Promised Land interacted with Rahab in Jericho there was likewise no communication problem – perhaps the Canaanites adopted the Semitic language of the locals when they moved in.

When God brought his chosen people, Israel, out of Egypt, most if not all had kept their native Hebrew language, so that a Psalmist centuries later could say that the Israelites considered Egyptian a “foreign language”. (Psalm 114:1) The Israelites used Hebrew among themselves and Egyptian to communicate with their masters. When the family of Israel became the nation of Israel, Jehovah’s warning to them about obedience included language: ‘God will raise against you a distant nation, whose language you will not understand.’ (Deuteronomy 28:49)

The language of the “distant nation” turned out to be the Chaldean language of Babylon. To the young Israelite men, such as Daniel, who were taken captive there, learning Chaldean was one of their first tasks. (Daniel 1:4) Aramaic was also spoken there, a holdover from the previous world power, Assyria.

In about 538 B.C.E., the account about Daniel in the lion’s den, King Darius of Babylon, “wrote to all the peoples, nations, and language groups dwelling throughout the earth: “… in every domain of my kingdom, people are to tremble in fear before the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rulership is eternal.” (Daniel 6:25, 26)

A generation after Daniel, when Nehemiah directed that the Scriptures be read publicly in Hebrew, (Nehemiah 8:8) the account says the Levite readers, ‘explained and put meaning into them.’ That included explaining the more complex texts, but that also likely meant paraphrasing the passages in Aramaic for those listeners for whom Hebrew was difficult.

Fast forward another century and Alexander the Great was blitzing across the known world, quickly making Greek the most common language. Jewish historian Josephus told this story about Alexander the Great’s visit to Jerusalem: 

“When the book of Daniel was shown to him, in which he had declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, he believed himself to be the one indicated.”

It’s unlikely Alexander read Hebrew; The Jews would have had to read it to him, translating it into Greek so he could understand it.

When Alexander died suddenly the kingdom of Greece was split into four parts, each part going to one of his four generals, just as the prophecy said. (Daniel 11:2-4)

Ptolemy II, the son of one of those generals described in Daniel 11, inherited the throne of pharaoh in Egypt. He built the greatest library the world had ever seen in Alexandria, the seaport built by Alexander. It was said to have housed up to 400,000 papyrus scrolls, and drew the greatest scholars in the world. Every scroll on every ship that pulled into harbor was seized, no matter the subject - even scrolls in languages unknown to the copyists. They were copied, and the copy was returned to the ship. The original became part of the library. Alexandria became the hub of copying and translating in the ancient world.

Alexandria was a city of over half a million people, a third of whom were Jewish, descendants of those Jews who fled there when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 43:6,7; Acts 6:9)

Ptolemy II commissioned a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. He brought in 72 Jewish scholars – six from each tribe – to Alexandria for the translation project.  The finished product is called the Septuagint, based on the word for “seventy”.

One word that appeared in the Hebrew text nearly 7,000 times had to be dealt with. God’s name, in Hebrew, consists of the four letters, YHWH.  Hebrew reads right-to-left, so if transliterated it looked more like יהוה (HWHY).

So far, more than 10 early Greek Septuagint manuscripts and fragments have been found which have inserted יהוה into the Greek text where the Hebrew had Jehovah. Some use the more familiar squarish-Hebrew characters, from the alphabet the Jews evidently borrowed from Babylon. Others insert the tetragrammaton in the older paleo-Hebrew (Canaanite) alphabet :

 

There are even some examples of something the Latin translator Jerome commented on in a letter to someone named Marcella:


In a letter written at Rome, 384 C.E., Jerome relates that, when coming upon these Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton (יהוה) in copies of the Septuagint, "certain ignorant ones, because of the similarity of the characters…were accustomed to pronounce Pi Pi, mistaking them for the Greek characters."

Jerome did the world a huge disservice: He knew God’s name; He had access to and could read the original Hebrew Scrolls of the Old Testament in which he saw יהוה nearly 7000 times. By his day the Jewish rabbis had begun spreading the superstition about not saying God's name out loud, but why should that bother Jerome? He wasn't Jewish. 

There had to be Jews who could tell him the most common way Hebrew-speaking people pronounced יהוה

There were no doubt Greek speakers who had come up with ways to pronounce God's name in Greek. Yet, when he wrote his Latin Vulgate version, he chose to translate יהוה as "Dominus", Lord, or "Deus", Latin for 'God', little different from words applied to all the hundreds of Roman gods, who all had distinctive names.

Perhaps it never occurred to him that Bible scholars would still be relying on his text a thousand years later.

Ultimately, what difference does it make? We’ll get to that in Part Two.

Click here to read another of my columns on Bible translation. 

 Feel free to leave a polite comment. 

Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at Amazon.com. You can help support this page by purchasing a book.

 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

WWIII part 3: Hamas, Houthi, Hezbollah


At least I’m not the only one calling it World War Three anymore. I’m starting to see WWIII headlines across major media outlets.

There are so many bad things happening all at once right now, we might get ‘news-fatigue’ and fail to see the signs of the times.

In the past few days the U.S. and the U.K. have attacked more than 60 different targets in the country of Yemen, to Israel’s south. The targets were said to be support sites for the Houthi rebels in their attacks on American and other shipping in the Red Sea. Nearly all the targets contained ammunition, drones, and missiles supplied to the Houthis by Iran.

Who are the Houthis, and what are they doing in Yemen?

The Houthis are Shia Muslims. (Islam is split into two major factions – Shia and Sunni. They don’t get along, but they are united in hatred of Israel.) Houthi rebels overthrew the (Sunni) Yemeni government in 2014, with the help of Shia-led Iran. Sunni-run countries like Saudi Arabia have been trying to reinstate the proper government of Yemen ever since, so far to no avail.

By attacking the Houthis on Yemeni soil, the U.S. and U.K. and their allies are attacking Iran by proxy.

Meanwhile, South Africa has formally brought charges against Israel in the U.N. for war crimes associated with their attacks on Hamas-led Gaza. Turkey has backed South Africa’s charges.

The day after Hamas’ latest attack on Israel, Hezbollah began firing guided missiles and drones from Lebanon to Israel’s north, into Israel. Israel retaliated in kind, firing at Hezbollah targets within Lebanon They have killed hundreds of Hezbollah, in addition to the tens of thousands they have killed in Gaza. (The actual government of Lebanon doesn’t approve of Hezbollah, but claims it can’t stop them and isn’t responsible for them.)

Like the Houthis, Hezbollah is backed by Iran. Unlike the Houthis, the Hezbollah threat is vast – they are believed to have 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel.

Powerful as Israel is, they are unlikely to be able to succeed against Hamas, Houthis, and Hezbollah without help. The U.S. had to recall an aircraft carrier from the Mediterranean after its mission had been extended twice due to the Ukraine war and other threats. With the new troubles, they moved a different aircraft carrier into the Red Sea. Iran claims they, too, have moved their carrier to the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, the war between Russia and Ukraine may have left the headlines, but it has not gone away. The ‘clay and iron’ problem in the U.S. government has delayed funding for Ukraine and hindered funding for Israel. Once-neutral Sweden, waiting for acceptance into NATO, has vowed to increase military spending, is urging its citizens to start preparing for war and is encouraging its youth to volunteer for military service.

And on the other side of the world from all of that, Venezuela has decided to move its border and grab about half of the country of its neighbor Guyana, after gold and oil were discovered there. That should be a local squabble except that Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, has asked the U.K. for help. And Britain responded that they will “ensure Guyana’s territorial integrity” no matter what. They now have a British warship standing off the coast. Venezuela in turn accused the British of destabilizing the area.  

So, for those of you keeping score at home:

The King of the North - Russia, Iran, and their allies - is shoving against the King of the South - America, Britain, Israel, and their allies. However it works out, perhaps we’ll hear ‘Peace and Security!’ when it’s over. (Daniel 2:43; Daniel 11:40; 1 Thessalonians 5:3)

 

 You can read Part One of this series by clicking here. You can read Part Two here.

Your polite comments are welcome. 
 
 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at Amazon.com. You can help support this page by purchasing a book.

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

World War Three? Part Two: Israel and Hamas



In Part One of this series, I speculated that we might be seeing the start of World War Three. Recent events seem to be building the case for that likelihood.

The Russia/Ukraine war shows no sign of stopping. In the nearly two years since it began, Belarus has made clear that they are firmly on Russia’s side. Despite efforts by the majority of U.N. members to choke off aid to Russia, some countries have given either tacit approval or active aid to Russia’s aggression, including:

  • China
  • India
  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • Syria
  • Myanmar
  • Eritrea
  • Mali
  • Nicaragua

In October, 2023, China hosted Russian leader Putin at an economic meeting that was also attended by Hungary’s president, Viktor Orban. Orban shook Putin’s hand and expressed his eagerness to “expand contacts.” He said, “Hungary never wanted to confront Russia.”  

On the other side of the hostilities, Finland joined NATO in April, 2023, taking their stand against Russia after decades of neutrality. In October, Finland accused Russia of sabotaging an undersea pipeline and telecommunications cable, possibly as a retaliatory move.

Sweden, after a long-standing policy of neutrality, also applied to join NATO in May, 2022, allying themselves against Russia. They, too, reported damage to an undersea cable. They haven’t yet blamed Russia, but the implication is there.

Russia seems to have a split personality: They have a strong anti-extremist policy which they have used against Islamic organizations within Russia (which they have weirdly applied to decidedly non-extremists, like Jehovah’s Witnesses). But they have also always kept an open mind toward Islamic governments outside Russia. They trade, for example, for military drones from Iran. Iran doesn’t need Russia’s oil, but they do import billions of dollars worth of other goods from them.

Russia also has strong diplomatic ties to Israel. Until now, Israel has not joined most of the World in sanctioning Russia for its attacks on Ukraine. A significant portion of Israelis hail from Russia, and a Russian speaker can navigate quite comfortably in Israel.

Just as nations chose up sides in 2022 between Russia and Ukraine, they are now having to choose between Israel and Hamas. (To read my column on the origin of the modern-day state of Israel, click here.)

Hamas is described as an Islamic extremist group or terrorist organization, depending on who’s doing the describing. They disagreed with the peace treaty worked out between Israel and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian organization back in Bill Clinton’s day. Hamas maintains, as the pre-Arafat Palestinians did, that Israel has no right to exist and should be exterminated. They began ‘poking the bear’ with small attacks against Israelis in the early 2000s. From 2007 on, Israel has walled off the densely populated, tiny Palestinian metropolis known as the Gaza Strip, turning it into a virtual outdoor prison. Anyone entering or leaving Gaza had to be cleared either through a gate east to Israel or a gate south to Egypt.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas fired an estimated 2,200 rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Where did they get the rockets? Some say they were manufactured in Iran; others, that Iran got them from Russia. Iran denies it. Just as the Mexican drug cartels dug under the southern border of the United States, Hamas dug tunnels under the border with Egypt to bring in rockets and other contraband from - somewhere. They also seem to have learned how to make rockets themselves.

Coordinated with the rocket attacks, they also launched ground attacks against the checkpoints into Israel and began killing random Israelis in villages and kibbutz’s outside the Strip, grabbing hundreds of hostages and dragging them back inside.  They took hostage many other non-Palestinians who were already within the Gaza Strip.

With the open war between Israel and Hamas, unsurprisingly the United States and most of NATO have come to the aid of or expressed support for Israel. Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Qatar, and Lebanon have all expressed their support for Hamas, as have the terror groups Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and others.

True Christians are strictly neutral as to world politics. But that doesn’t mean we are uninterested. We are saddened by the harm, stress, and loss of life in all countries affected by war. But these stressful conditions reaffirm that we are, absolutely, seeing the signs the Bible told us to watch for.

Only two major signs remain unfulfilled.

The next one calls for a significant cry of ‘Peace and Security!’ As we’ve discussed in previous columns, that cry could come in several different ways: 1. A dramatic end to a very large scale war, such as happened at the end of World War Two; 2. A change in the U.N.'s methods or ability to regulate international relations; 3. A shift in the human condition - such as a technological 'miracle' or a significant economic change - that causes the populace to begin saying that they personally are feeling more peaceful and secure than they ever have.

Personally, I’ve always expected the latter. I even speculated about it in my novel Resurrection Day. But if the fulfillment requires the declaration of peace at the end of a major war, then the current crises could escalate to exactly that climax.

 You can read Part One by clicking here. You can read Part Three here.

Your polite comments are welcome. 
 
 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at Amazon.com. You can help support this site by purchasing a book.
 

Monday, October 9, 2023

How to define real Christianity

 



Who, really, is a ‘Christian’?

Sadly, we now live in a society where even asking such a question is seen as being judgmental. But surely there’s a definitive answer, even if it offends someone.

Dictionary definitions are all over the map. One says, “One who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.” But another says Christianity means, “Treating other people in a kind and generous way.” 

The last definition is patently ridiculous; lots of people of religions other than Christianity treat others in a kind and generous way. What has been called “the Golden Rule” (‘Treat others as you would like to be treated,’ Matthew 7:12) has parallels among nearly all religions, from Buddhism to Baha’i, Judaism to Jainism.

The other definition seems closer to the mark, professing belief in Jesus’ teachings. The problem with that one is that many folks who clearly don’t practice Jesus’ teachings, many who don't even know what those teachings are, still call themselves Christians.

Is that good enough? Can we define a “Christian” as ‘one who believes in Jesus’ teachings'?

Let's look at how we came to that word “Christian”.

Jesus called his followers disciples, but that Greek word was not unique to Jesus – Paul no doubt described himself early in life as a disciple (follower or student) of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel, in a speech to the Jewish rulers, described a troublemaker named Judas the Galilean as “drawing away (a Greek word linked to 'apostasy') disciples after himself" (Acts 5:37). The elders of the congregation in Jerusalem warned Paul that the leaders of the Jews viewed his teachings as “an apostasy from Moses. . .” (Acts 21:21)

Some Bible scholars posit that devout Jews of Jesus’ day dubbed his followers derec hanotserim, Hebrew for ‘the sect (or the Way) of the Nazarene’, and that Saul and other persecutors may have shortened it to simply ‘The Way’. Jewish enemies are quoted as using the term ‘The Way’ about them half a dozen times in the Bible (Acts 9:2). In turn, those early Christians may have accepted the term, turning it from pejorative to compliment by linking it to the phrase, “The Way of Jehovah”, used nine times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Proverbs 10:29). Adding some backing to that speculation is that Luke used exactly that term to describe the instruction of a disciple named Apollos in Acts 18:25.

For about the first six years after Jesus’ death, his followers were almost exclusively Jewish. The Jewish leaders viewed them as a breakaway sect of Judaism. A couple years after they began to include Gentiles in their preaching the biblical account tells us, “… The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Ac 11:26 WEB) 

The word rendered ‘called’ could be taken to mean people in general calling them that, perhaps even using it as a derogatory term, like the followers of Sun Myung Moon being called Moonies. However, Bible commentator Adam Clarke (as well as others) noted that the Greek word translated‘called’ here is consistently used throughout the New Testament in reference to messages from God. The word is used, for example, in Luke 2:26 where it speaks of a man named Simeon being ‘advised by the holy spirit’ that he would see the Messiah before he died. Thus some Bible translations render Acts 11:26, “… the disciples also were divinely called first in Antioch Christians.” (Young’s Literal Trans.)

For the next fourteen centuries, people all over Europe and the Middle East called themselves ‘Christians.’ They did so even throughout the Dark Ages when most of them couldn’t read, when they had no actual knowledge of what Christ taught his followers to do and believe. There was only one church choice for believers – Catholic. It was called “catholic” because the first definition of that word is “universal”, and that was sadly fitting: as the kings and popes conquered other peoples and absorbed their pagan beliefs into the Church it truly became a universal mishmash of non-biblical, non-Christ-like doctrine.

As those kings and popes began to encounter other empires that could not be absorbed into their universal church they coined a couple new words: ‘Christendom’, for themselves (meaning all the kingdoms ruled by kings they considered Christian) and ‘Pagandom’, the Islamic, Asian and African worlds ruled by kings that wouldn't kiss their rings.

Even after Martin Luther’s protest broke significant chunks of claimed Christians away from Catholicism, kings and clergy still included those Protestants, politically at least, in Christendom.

It's really too bad the term Christendom has faded like Shakespeare’s English. "Members of Christendom" would certainly be a much more accurate term for the millions of professed ‘Christians’ living today.

So if all those who call themselves Christians are not really Christians, what’s a Christian?

The best definition of Christian would have to come from the Bible. One of the original Christians, Peter, said that Christ left “a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (1 Peter 2:24) 

If we do our best to closely follow the model Jesus set, we can properly call ourselves Christians. If we do not, we cannot. What model did Jesus set?

  • Jesus taught his followers to pray to “OUR Father,” that is, his father as well as theirs. (Matthew 6:9) He never taught anyone to pray to him.
  • Jesus’ taught those early Christians to use his Father’s name (John 17:6), even though their Jewish leaders were discouraging people from using it.
  • Early Christians preached about Jesus, but they also taught the gentiles the importance of turning from pagan gods with names like Dionysus, Zeus, and Apollos to Jehovah God. (1 Thess. 1:9)
  • Early Christians had no special garments, special titles, or salary for clergy. In fact, they had no clergy. Matthew 23:1-12)
  • Jesus rejected special titles for himself. (Luke 22:25, 26; Mark 10:17)
  • Jesus exemplified humility, giving credit to his father for his teachings. (John 7:16)
  • Jesus took no money for his work. He died penniless despite being able to perform amazing miracles. (Mark 15:24)
  • Every Christian was expected to preach, and was taught to do so. (Matthew 28:19, 20)
  • Early Christians were united. They ‘spoke with one accord.’ (Acts 4:24)
  • Early Christians knew what Jesus wanted them to do, and they did it. “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:13) How many of Jesus’ commands can you name? How many are you doing?
  • Jesus commanded Christians to love one another ‘just as HE loved them.’ (John 13:34) He loved us enough to died for us; who would you be willing to die for?
  • Early Christians did not hate other Christians; in fact, they were forbidden to do so. (1 John 2:11)
  • Jesus taught that marriage was forever (Matthew 19:6), that sex belonged only within marriage (Matthew 5:32), and that engaging in homosexuality did not have God’s approval (Luke 17:29).
  • Early Christians obeyed even dictatorial authorities (Matthew 5:42), yet they refused orders that contradicted Jesus’ commands (Matthew 22:21).

I could go on, but this has gotten too long already. Suffice it to say, you will find very, very few Christians that meet this definition of Christianity. But they do exist. They are on the hard, narrow road, rather than the broad, easy one.

Everyone else who calls himself a Christian is really just a member of Christendom. 

To read Part One of this discussion, click here.

Please feel free to leave a comment. 

 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at Amazon.com. You can help support this site by purchasing a book.