November 13, 2011

ON READING THE SCRIPTURES

     Address delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
        at Holy Faith Episcopal church, Port St Lucie, on 13 November 2011

 

There was a time when the Collect that we use today, the Second Sunday before Advent, was used on the Second Sunday in Advent.  I have never understood why it was thought wise or necessary to make that change, but it has been made, which makes today Bible Sunday.  When I was very much younger, we would have a visiting preacher, often from the British and Foreign Bible Society, and we would be told how the Bible was being translated into more and more languages and so was becoming available to ever more and more people, always supposing that they could read!  It might seem incredible to some people that there are still languages that have yet to be committed to a written form, but such is the case.  Even when we lived in Kenya in the 1980s and ’90s, only forty-five of the fifty-four tribal languages had been written down, and there were representatives of various Bible translation societies working to create written versions of the other nine, work that involved creating dictionaries and definitions.

We take the Scriptures far too easily for granted.  Indeed, we have so many different versions these days that there is competition between the different publishers to see who can get the biggest sales.  I would hate to tell you just how many special offers for this, that and the other version I receive in any given week.  What I find most worrying is the knowledge that many of these Bibles, or rather versions of the Bible, are not so much literal translations of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but are more like interpretations pushing the view of some particular denomination or sect.  I urge you to be very careful when thinking of buying a Bible or giving the gift of a Bible.  It would be wise to talk with your clergy first when thinking of doing so.

We have a plethora of Bibles, but we should not forget that there was a time when the Scriptures were not available in English.  The first serious translation of the Scriptures into English was made in the late 1300s, but it was only in the 1500s, with the advent of the printing press, that an English version of the Scriptures became readily available, and a copy was placed in every parish church, chained to the lectern in many cases to prevent theft.  And it was not until the 1600s that the Authorised Version appeared at the behest of King James.

We should never forget that the Scriptures were not originally written in English, not least because English did not exist as a language at the time of their composition. Not one of the Biblical authors used a single English word.  Jesus never spoke in English, although we can pray to him in English!  The languages of the Bible are Hebrew for the bulk of the Old Testament, although some chapters in Daniel were first composed in Aramaic, and Greek for the entire New Testament.  And even so, the words of Jesus have come down to us only in translation, since he probably spoke in Aramaic and not in Greek. 

And one of the problems behind all this is that concepts and beliefs do not always readily translate from one culture to another, let alone from one language to another, and even if they do, the meaning of words changes over time and location.  We know this only too well with the language called English, but it is also true in and between the languages of the Bible.  This is why we need to be so very careful when we choose a Bible for our personal use.  When the Authorised Version first appeared there was only one Church in England.  These days there are so many different denominations in the English-speaking world that there cannot be but one authorised version, and it might be wisest to look for a version that bears the stamp of approval of all or most of the major denominations. 

Then there is something else to keep in mind.  The letters of Paul and Peter and James and John and Jude began life as written documents, but the Gospels and Acts and the bulk of the Old Testament are written reports of events that had happened years before and even centuries before.  Some of these stories and sayings had been passed down for generations by word of mouth, taught by elders to youngsters, with all the dangers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation that an oral tradition is heir to.  And before the age of the printing press, copies of the Scriptures had to be made by hand, often at the dictation of a reader, and who can tell how many errors crept in over the centuries to be perpetuated from one generation to the next?  If you were to look at my copy of the Greek New Testament you would see how many different versions there are of individual verses, and the same would be true of the Hebrew of the Old Testament.  My copy of the Hebrew Scriptures comes with an abundance of footnotes that read, “Hebrew text uncertain”, and that Hebrew text is published by the Jewish Publication Society. 

These days most of these difficulties with the text of the Scriptures have been recognized and to some extent dealt with, thanks to the devoted labours of linguists and ethnologists.  And at least the translators of the Authorised Version in the early 1600s had the grace to acknowledge that they did not always understand these difficulties and indicated they did not by leaving some words in italics.  But there still remains a serious problem, one that is perpetuated by what we might call theological partisans.  In our day these are often revealed by the choice of words that they use to translate a particular passage, hence the advisability of using a translation with transdenominational support.  But within the Scriptures themselves, both Greek and Hebrew, we are able to detect a degree of partisanship. 

In the Old Testament there are at least two struggles going on, quite apart from the struggle between the Northern Kingdom of Israel centred on Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah based on Jerusalem.  The first of these has to do with ritual, how God should be worshipped.  In our Wednesday evening Bible studies we have looked at this struggle between those who say things must be done in a certain way because that is what they like to call tradition (or the Hebrew equivalent of that word) and those who argue that we must listen closely to what the Lord actually has said and is saying at all times and places.  The other struggle has to do with understanding the significance of the Torah, what is often inadequately translated as the Law.  Does it have to be followed to the last little letter, or does one live by the Spirit behind the Law?  These divisions get heightened in the West with our culture based on Greek logic and Latin legalism.  It is the struggle we see between Isaiah and the prophets on the one hand, and the priestly class on the other as represented, for example, in the books we call Exodus and Leviticus.  It is the struggle we see in the Gospels between Jesus and the Temple authorities, the scribes and the Pharisees. 

In the New Testament we see a similar battle for the hearts and minds and souls of believers.  Jesus left no written record of his views, but those views are interpreted by his followers in several ways.  In one camp are the writer of James and the evangelist we call Matthew, seeking to advise a largely Jewish group of believers as to how to understand Jesus and his, as they saw it, interpretation of the Torah in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures.  In a second camp are Paul and the evangelist we call Luke, seeking to guide believers of a more non-Jewish culture.  And then there is a third camp, the writers of the Gospel and letters of John.  And perhaps there is a fourth camp, represented by the writer of I Peter and the evangelist we call Mark.  We might regret that Jesus left no written word, but he chose not to, or if he did so it has long since been lost. 

What we have in the Scriptures, Hebrew or Greek, are very human attempts by men, and perhaps a woman or two, to express what they know of God.  Sometimes, as so often in the Psalms, we have beautiful examples of people reaching out to the Lord God of Israel, whether in prayer or in praise.  Frequently, the stories are of how the Lord God reached out to individuals, either to call them into a particular ministry, as is the case with so many of the prophets, or to lead them to take action that would, in the long term, benefit them or, more likely, others.  Sometimes, we have attempts by human beings to discern something of the character and nature of God, as in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, and as in the Epistles and the book often called Revelation in the New Testament.  And all the time the literature in the Scriptures is about God, whether the Lord God of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Jesus, the Son of God, in the New Testament.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Scriptures is to seek to answer the same series of questions that Jesus posed to his disciples on one occasion.  Who do people say that I am?  The disciples answered in several different ways.  And then Jesus said, “But who do you say that I am?”  What does Jesus mean to you?  That is the most important question you will ever be asked. 

When I was in seminary it was the custom at the beginning of the summer vacation for the student body to go on a parish mission.  We would arrive in a particular parish to which the Vestry had invited us. Each afternoon and evening, we would go out, two by two, to the homes of various parishioners where we would meet a dozen or so people, some of them parishioners, but many of them not.  One of us would give a testimony, and then we would be asked all sorts of questions about the Faith.  One night one of the non-parishioners spoke up along these lines.  “I’ve read the Bible.  I know what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have to say about Jesus.  I know what Paul and Peter have to say about Jesus.  I want to know what you have to say about Jesus.  What has Jesus done in your life?”  All of which is another way of saying, “Who do you say Jesus is?” 

Anyone can quote the Scriptures.  People do it all the time without knowing it.  Even the Devil quotes the Scriptures.  There are real lessons to be learned in the Scriptures about how other people have experienced God at work in their lives. And we thank God for that, and the record of those encounters.  We are privileged to have the Scriptures, and to have them in our own language.  But for many generations there were no Scriptures!  The prophets of the Old Testament had no Scriptures.  They had to rely on the message that God gave them in their spiritual encounters with him.  The authors of the New Testament had no written Gospel and none of the Epistles, because they were the ones who wrote them!  Again, they had to rely on a living spiritual experience with God as he met them in Jesus of Nazareth. 

Let me put that another way.  As Christians, with a copy of the Bible – perhaps several copies of the Bible – in our homes, we should read the Bible and know what is in it, and not just what some beloved parent, Sunday School teacher or preacher has told us is in it.  But just because someone has read the Bible and knows what is in it, it does not mean that that person is a Christian.  The question that has to be answered is: Would you know God if you met him?  Think about some of the encounters we read about in the Bible.  Abraham first encountered God one night as he was looking up into the starry sky.  Prior to that, he did not even know that there was a deity who might be interested in him.  Then he met God on another occasion, while he was sitting in the shade of his front porch while Sarah was inside preparing lunch.  Moses met God in an unusual experience while walking in the desert.  Suddenly there was a bush all aflame, yet it did not burn.  Samuel encountered God one night when, as a small boy, he was trying to get to sleep.  Isaiah saw the Lord while he was in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Now, none of these people had a copy of the Bible, not even the Hebrew Bible, as it had not yet been put together, and its various parts had not yet been written.  Yet all of them somehow came to realize that it was the Lord God who was entering their lives.  Saul of Tarsus met Jesus on the highway to Damascus one noontide, while Mary met him in the cool of a garden one Sunday morning, although she did not recognize him at first.  She thought he was a gardener.  Saul and Mary would have had some sort of access to parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, but they certainly did not have a copy of the New Testament since it had not yet been written. 

We are privileged to be able to read how God, whether as Father, Son or Holy Spirit, chose to encounter individuals as they went about their daily business.  We need to be able to recognize when God, whether as Father, Son or Holy Spirit, encounters us as we go about our daily business – and the almost anonymous way in which Jesus encountered Mary might give us a clue as to where and when such an encounter is occurring.  And then, should someone asks us about God, we can say that we know him, because he has met with us and talked with us, and maybe he even walked with us.  Who, from our own experience, is this Jesus of Nazareth?  Who is he for you?