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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A New New Testament Update

I received A New New Testament for Christmas and have a habit now of reading a book or so every Sunday, having read the general explanatory material (around 100 pages). The editor provides a brief commentary before each book, which at times tends to be somewhat weak.

As noted, there are generally no footnotes, the few pointing out their value at times -- e.g., "apostle" is noted to be translated as "ambassador" or generally "one who is sent" or messenger (so "ambassador to Christ" would be appropriate because here the messenger is particularly important).  Paul insists that he deserves this title though a common understanding is that there were only twelve apostles.  An understanding of what the word means helps to show its usage. "Church" is another word whose origins in the original Greek adds something to usage.  Sometimes the nuances are really lost -- the particular word used for God in the Old ("Old") Testament is a case in point -- the modern reader will miss that "Yahweh" or "El" is not the same thing.  Various words used for "wisdom" also -- one of the few footnotes notes this, particularly because wisdom often was seen in feminine terms ("Sophia"). 

[Understanding of the times is also very useful. See, e.g., this discussion of the norms as to dress etc, which helps explains Paul's instruction that women cover their head in church.  Unlike the "Paul" command for women not to speak in church, this is much more clearly something he wrote.]

The version here also tries to universalize the translations, changing pronouns for instance, when it is appropriate.  One useful website provides a mass of translations of the texts (the same applies another place where there are more than one translation of non-canon works, such as the Gospel of Thomas), and the different nuances of the language is at times remarkable.  This is not limited to this area -- translators of Homer, e.g., provide a range of possibilities.  Take Galatians 6:
My friends, if someone is caught in any kind of wrongdoing, those of you who are spiritual should set him right; but you must do it in a gentle way. And keep an eye on yourselves, so that you will not be tempted, too. Help carry one another's burdens, and in this way you will obey[a] the law of Christ. If you think you are something when you really are nothing, you are only deceiving yourself. You should each judge your own conduct. If it is good, then you can be proud of what you yourself have done, without having to compare it with what someone else has done. For each of you have to carry your own load.
This is the "Good News" translation, which sounds like the Bible that we were given in high school.  But, there are various others, though the basic message of this worthwhile text basically holds. The NNT version tosses in some feminine pronouns ("her" for the more generic terms used).  Some say "works" for "conduct" (a big debate is the importance of "faith" vs. "works").  The King James version opens thusly:
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
It also says "fulfill" instead of "obey" the law of Christ. I don't know how much different that is, though "a man" clearly furthers a sexist mind-set, but the flavor of the language does matter.  The value of good literature is not just its message, but how it goes about promoting that message. Such would apply here, surely. I noted how a basic thing like a good font helps reading the book. Imagine back when the text had no verse numbers to space things out.  Or, even, ancient texts that provided what might appear like one long run on sentence with minimal marks for clarity, basic things like quotation marks or even (earlier on) vowels not in place. Imagine trying to read that.  Blah.

The reading is informative. Martha Nussbaum -- noted here since she wrote one of the books in the series referenced last time -- once noted the value of reading certain philosophical works to get a fuller understanding of sexual orientation issues.  I admit to have read little Greek philosophy though the parable of the cave intrigued me years back when I first read it and probably should have read some more in that department. Reading religious works also is worthwhile. Just what do these people some big segment of this country believe to be scripture say? 

Galatians is one of the highlights -- one summary noted it is the epistle that others are compared to determine if Paul truly wrote them, including as a basic summary of Paul's early career and beliefs as compared to the more sanitized Acts version. For instance, a reference is made to "the present evil age" -- apocalyptic concerns a major influence on early Christians.  The letter also summarizes Paul's belief that faith in Jesus Christ is central, not following "the Law" (Torah), particularly circumcision.  He does some scriptural analysis to back this up, which seems more for the benefit of some of his Jewish critics than for the non-Jewish converts he is explicitly addressing.  The "faith" v. "works" debate is a major Christian dispute, one that comes up again in James.*

Personally, along with many, this material works better if taken with a grain of salt as well as a good degree of flexibility. This includes uses the material metaphorically, which Paul himself does some in this very epistle. The Jewish thinker Philo (whose life overlapped Paul) also used that approach in various ways.  The "spirit" or "spiritual" matters to me is a major example of putting this in action.  The general understanding then was that there was an actual "spirit" involved with some physical form -- a force of God or spark within (see various gnostic writings). It also, fascinatingly enough, was used by non-Christian writers of the time -- see, e.g., how Seneca uses "holy spirit" and a form of the "divine spark" within us idea of Gnostics here.  It again is useful to understand Christianity didn't arise in a vacuum.  But, it can be seen metaphorically, like we use "spirit" in various ways now -- "spirit of '76" etc. 

I have read a few books in the volume, including from the non-canonical pile (e.g., The Thunder, Perfect Mind), and will continue.


* "Faith" as well as "belief" is one of those basic things that  to me becomes more confusing upon contemplation. What exactly is this "faith" particularly?  The word "faith" in part translates as "trust," which in practice is not just based on what you see (e.g., the doubting Thomas story though there the other apostles had some ground to believe he rose from the dead based on various facts) ... so we have a "leap of faith" concept here.  This turns off some people -- religion is seen as blind faith, not reason.  OTOH, as seen by reference to Seneca et. al., philosophers also used language of "God" and "holy spirit" mixing in appeals to reason and "natural law" arising from it.

Paul here suggests that religion often is a matter of rules, doctrine and practices. I think a basic point here is a certain emotional connection to God (goodness, rightful conduct), not just following rules is important. Many accounts suggest conversion (as was Paul's apparently) is just that sort of thing. A certain feeling comes over you.  Why is stealing wrong?  Because it is "the law"? No, because it hurts people. Why does that matter?  If people merely cite the law, it sounds a bit cruel even.  People want you to believe that certain things are wrong. 

There is more to it than that, especially for Paul, since "the law" here is Jewish law, and Paul's mission was preaching to the Gentiles.  And, the New Testament as a whole is not just about faith, but also rules of rightful conduct -- even Paul covers that ground, including in letters clearly his.  Still, faith is very important in these books, and repeatedly as part of a personal emotional transformation of one's self.  Faith or "belief" can be in an ideology based on reason, but that emotional component is key.

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