I’ve recently finished reading a page-turner of a tome, a biography of two adversaries, titled FATAL DISCORD: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing. This author is a masterful researcher and storyteller. Anyone with an interest in the history of ideas would find this book lively. The book has range and depth, across empires, popes, kings, wars, and rivalries. At its center is a fight over how to read the Bible in it’s many fragments, collected in Latin and Greek (and more).
Decades ago at a nondenominational divinity school, when I encountered the puzzle of reading the Bible in early languages, I dropped out. Today the online tools are amazing. Here’s an example from my own study:
Rocky, Rocco in Latin or Italian, is a tough-guy name. But petros, in Greek, from which we get the name Peter, not so much. Think Pebble. (Jesus was yanking Simon’s tail, by giving him a diminutive nickname.) Yet Peter is thought of as a brawny fisherman, the foremost disciple of Jesus – the leader of the pack – but the church which Jesus reportedly built upon Pete’s name is feminine, petra, bedrock. (Why are churches run mostly by men?) Enjoy the word-play below. Link note: get past registering by clicking the tiny line “not this time” in lower left, then scroll to v.18 and click the blue appearances of Peter and rock in Greek and English.
¿What fun, no? I’ve been reading the Bible since I was seven, by free choice. I own and use many translations and paraphrased renderings. One became a personal favorite a few decades ago, The Message, done by an exciting translator, Eugene Peterson, a language scholar and Presbyterian minister who helped his congregants develop their spiritual lives thru translating the text with them. His publisher promoted their release as Read the Bible again for the first time. It was that fresh.
Language is a living thing. It goes stale when bottled or canned, as can be seen in the Latin mass, the Vulgate, the King James Version (which I love and use almost daily, reading between its lines by unpacking the Hebrew and Greek).
One of the exciting things about Massing’s book is that it reports the histories of Bible publishing, often as a contest of wills between many powerful players, which became a deadly contest with beheadings, burnings at the stake, murders, and social upheaval – all over the meaning of words. Hot stuff!
And it continues yet today. We have shootings in churches, assassinations of politicians, gynecologists and ministers, and fierce fights over how to read our own laws. The idea that a document can be “frozen” and understood using a mindset that was in the heads of our Founding Fathers, imperils the understanding of our Constitution. This approach to interpreting the law of the land, contrived by Justice Scalia, is thoroughly debunked by the dean of a prominent law school, in his slim but powerful volume WE THE PEOPLE.
How to read is so basic to being a modern human. A favorite author who became a born-again Christian as a teen, went to two evangelical colleges, got a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary where he started to question his understanding of the Bible, and today no longer identifies as Christian (but continues to study the Bible, and write books on biblical topics), is one of the most popular professors on his campus in the Bible belt. His many accessible and compelling books on translating the Bible can be seen at Amazon. Misquoting Jesus is a good place to start.
Conclusion: we are all translators of our encounter with reality! Is your “version” making sense for you today?
NOTE: Here’s a link to a translating project I did, gathering together the ethical teachings of Jesus, including the “sermon on the mount”. And here’s a more recent link to a book about Thomas Jefferson’s pursuit of the ethical teachings of Jesus.