Sunday, February 14, 2021

Hard Words

 "A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St Paul. It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the Gospels) and that St Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the Epistles). This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St Paul."  CS Lewis Introduction to JB Phillip's Letters to Young Churches.

I have long used the JB Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament (which came later than this book, which is partial), largely on Lewis's affection for it.  Fundamentalists get all nervous about paraphrases, thinking that they are not reliable or trustworthy, somehow. How dare you paraphrase the BIBLE? Even evangelicals get affected by this. Yet anyone who has ever translated from one language to another or even dealt heavily with translations knows that paraphrase is far more accurate in meaning than trying to make sure that the combination of letters that came down to us textus receptus is the true and shining Word of God.  Having those exact words is a good check on going too far astray, and correcting our work.  But literal translations are horribly misleading.  Every language has idioms and phrasings that in their literal versions make no sense. What does it mean to "get your act together," or to "pull someone's leg," or to "hit the sack?" At every moment in reading Hebrew or Greek there is some danger of this.  Hopefully, we have smoothed these out over time with scholarship and common sense.  Yet are we absolutely sure of that?

We might laugh at these in heaven, saying "Amos!  I thought you meant something completely different!  This is hysterical." That is why we should hold such things lightly now, doing the best we can to muddle through with what we've got. The long meaning, verse after verse or repeated many times in the scriptures should command our greatest attention, and puzzling things should be regarded as...puzzling and...intriguing. They should in no way be discarded.  They may someday reveal a meaning to us that is key to our understanding.  But we should be humble about texts.

As to gentle Jesus and harsh Paul, there is Matthew 10.  This is troubling to read.



Texan99 said...

For me the contrast is not between niceness and harshness but between natural concrete clarity and a tendency to opaque abstraction. Not always, of course; sometimes the Pauline epistles are poetic and direct.

Unknown said...

On one occasion I happened to dine with some ex-Christians who seemed to have the misapprehension in the first paragraph, and we got into a deep discussion about it. They'd be fine with a Christianity that left out everything of Paul, they said.
They also thought Paul to be quite misogynistic, and seemed a bit taken aback that I had at the tip of my tongue lots of examples of Paul supporting, encouraging, and endorsing the women who were leaders in the early churches. I'd just read ‘I Suffer Not a Woman' by Richard and Catherine Kroeger, so the canon of the egalitarian position on women teaching in the church was all fresh in my mind.

Eugene Peterson's The Message bible is another paraphrase. It is so much of its time and place that whenever I read it, the voice in my head is that of a college friend also named Eugene who was born and grew up in Baltimore -- the dialect and word choice matches my friend's 'voice' so well.

My NT professor had a mantra that between us and the text of the New Testament there are many 'filters'. That we must read in translation obscures the text for us. That we cannot really grasp the Greek or Aramaic idiomatic expressions without explanation obscures the text for us. That we don't live in the Levant is another 'layer' to veil the meaning from us. That we don't live in social, economic, and political milleu of the 1st century, in the Levant, are yet more layers. One can put a lot of effort into contextualizing the text in an effort to overcome such filters, but one can also go too far - there was never a gate in Jerusalem called "the eye of the needle", at least not until centuries after Jesus ministry.

An aside, I was once riding in a car at night with a driver that had gotten us hopelessly lost in an area of featureless farmland and wasteland -- including at one point driving the wrong-way down the oncoming lanes of a divided road. Then at one point we came around a bend and could see above us in the distance, on the hill, the walled fortress city of L-Imdina, the pale stone of the ancient buildings glowing in the moonlight. This was our rescue, having a landmark enabled us to get on the right route to get to our destination.
Having had that huge release from fear and anxiety, upon seeing the light of a city set on a hill, has certainly influenced the meaning I take from Matthew 5, 12-16.