Tag Archives: scripture

1000 Years on a Turn of Phrase — Matt 3:2

I’ve been posting a bit recently on translation issues, while reading ever more catholic theology.

Here’s an interesting connection between the two.

Hobein's portait of Erasmus

Holbein's famous portrait of Erasmus

The Catholic church has an official doctrine called ‘purgatory’. In simplistic terms the logic goes like this: God demands true repentance for our sins. True repentance takes acts of penance. Penance takes time. There may not be enough time in our earthly life to properly repent of our earthly sins. So after death we enter a state of penance for a while, until we are ready to enter heaven. This state is purgatory. It isn’t pleasant (but no penance is), but it is in no way hell, and it only has one exit: to heaven.

This doctrine is unique to the Catholic church (and some closely related independent catholic splinters). It was rejected by protestants in the reformation, and was never adopted by the orthodox church.

Onto this basic doctrine was built a whole series of late medieval practices, including the usual suspects of Catholic pillory: masses for the dead, and indulgences. An indulgence is a grant from the infinite ‘bank’ of grace belonging to Jesus and the saints, which diminishes the burden of penance and therefore reduces your time in purgatory. A mass for the dead is a private service, usually performed by one or two clergy, that intercedes for a soul in purgatory, to ask for blessings and grace (and therefore a shorter incarceration).

The bible doesn’t say anything about purgatory. We know that, but the Catholics who created the intricate theology around it didn’t.

When Jerome (at the turn of the 5th century — see my church history in one page) translated the gospels, he rendered the greek word μετανοειτε (metanoete) as ‘do penance’ (‘poenitentiam agite’ in latin) in John the Baptist’s command from Matt 3:2. Jerome’s Vulgate was the main biblical text for the next 1000 years of Catholic practice and theology. It isn’t a good translation. About as literal as I can get, μετανοειτε means ‘change your mind’. We could translate this as ‘re-think’, which is exactly how we’d put it now: ‘re-pent’ (from the Latin ‘penso’, to think – where we get our word pensive).

The most significant criticism of Jerome’s translation came from Erasmus, a Catholic theologian and writer, who had the somewhat unfortunate honour of involuntarily providing much of the intellectual ammunition for the reformation. Erasmus very much worked in the bounds of Catholic theology, while being quite forthright (for the time) about where his research led him. He found a compromise, by reanimating an earlier train of theological thought. He acknowledged that there were truths that were not to be found in the bible, but that were revealed through the Sacred Church.

Erasmus’s approach has become a staple of modern catholic theology, which often combines ‘scripture and tradition’ as a source of true knowledge about God. Of course, in the reformation, which broke out in the last period of Erasmus’s life, tradition was seen as corrupt and rejected in favour of some variety of ‘sola scriptura’ (only scripture).

The irony is that there are plenty of doctrines that are believed by protestants which aren’t found in the bible. Most notably all those tricky theological compromises hammered out in the church councils from 325 to 451, including the trinity and the nature of Christ.

For another example where a bad translation completely changes the meaning of a text, see Jim McGrath’s blog post today.


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In the Beginning – Translating Genesis 1:1-3

Michelangelo's Creation

Michelangelo's Creation, strictly this comes later, but it is a beautiful piece of art!

In the previous post I alluded to the beginning of Genesis, and how it is translated.

The form we’re most used to reading is something like this:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

– Gen 1:1-3 (NIV)

This is an okay (maybe B- grade) translation, but we could do better. Here’s another attempt:

When the gods began to create the heavens and the earth: the earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the breath of the gods was poised over the waters. The gods said “let there be light” and there was light.

In this translation (maybe an A- quality? 🙂 )I’ve emphasized a few things.

  • Firstly ‘God’ is plural in Hebrew. It is not, however, preceded by the definite article, so my ‘the gods’ is really no better than just ‘God’ for the translation. A lot of Christian (and Jewish) apologetics has been spent on justifying this plural form, with explanations from the ‘royal we’ to the trinity. Still the fact is that it is plural.
  • Secondly the ‘in the beginning’ form isn’t perfect. It doesn’t signify a particular instant at which the story starts, and there is no good reason to suppose that it only sets the scene for the ‘create’ verb to be the primary verb. No, in Hebrew the two words are connected: physically and conceptually. My translation is better here.
  • Thirdly I’ve removed the obviously Christian ‘Spirit of God’ (even capitalized, notice!) and replaced it by the meaning of the word: breath. This, I think, makes far more sense of the contrast between the breath being poised over the water, and then the exhalation: “let there be light”.
  • Finally I’ve restructured the phrase so it makes sense. The KJV-derived translation is jumpy. The first sentence talks about the creation, then we jump back before the creation, then forward to the moment of creation. My translation is better – it shows that the discussion of the pre-creation situation is part of the narrative. It also emphasizes, as does the original text, that this act of creation wasn’t the start of everything. There were at least four  recognizable things in the cosmos: earth (albeit formless), the deep, the waters and some space above the waters and the deep (without which the contrastive ‘over’ wouldn’t make sense).

My favourite published translation of this is by the Jewish Publication Society, which says:

When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

– Gen 1:1-3 (JPS)

I’ll give that an B+. One particular gripe I have is that it has decided that there is only one heaven now. Heaven is plural, and from other OT passages we know this isn’t just a coincidence: there was a cosmology with multiple heavens.

To go for the full A grade, I think I’d start with my translation and turn ‘God’ into the name: ‘Elohim’. Because I think it is difficult to use any combination of the word ‘god’ to give the real sense of its meaning, and sometimes it is just better to transliterate words that would otherwise be confusing.

By the time Genesis was codified and edited into its current form, the original sense of ‘elohim’ as ‘gods’ had been subsumed into it being a reference to the one true god of the Jews, the same god as Yahweh. So using it as a name is probably best. That way you can read it with the original ambiguity: between the name of an individual, and the name of a group (c.f. “when Medicins Sans Frontiers began to work in Sierra Leone…”).

When Elohim began to create the heavens and the earth: the earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep; and Elohim’s breath was poised over the waters. Elohim said “let there be light” and there was light.

It strikes me that this translation is less fundamentalist-friendly than the version we’re more used to. But I can’t really put my finger on why that might be. Maybe it is just that it isn’t the form that the inerrancists normally quote. Does it strike you the same way?


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The story of how a bible verse is read — 1 John 5:7-8

Annotated exceprt from the Codex Sinaiticus

1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, with various textual features signified.

Following on from yesterday’s post on the Johannine Comma, I was enjoying looking again through the online copy of the Codex Sinaiticus. It is both more difficult, and more rewarding than reading the reprinted greek critical text. I thought it would be interesting, for those who don’t know greek, ancient texts, or have never used their greek on primary documents, to point out a few interesting features. There’s loads I could say, and far far more I’m ignorant of, but I’ll limit myself to the text I posted yesterday, the text surrounding the Comma in 1 John 5:7-8.

As a brief reminder, an english translation would be:

For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree.

– 1 John 5:7-8

I’ve indicated five things in the document.

  1. ΟΙ (“oi” – a form of “the” or “these”) here is unusual and isn’t in other versions of the text. It is probably a mistake, because later in the highlighted section we get ΟΙ ΤΡΕΙΣ again (“oi treis” – these three). When copying, it is very easy to have your eye drawn to the wrong occurrence of a word and write what comes before or after. So the extra ΟΙ before this first use of ΤΡΕΙΣ is considered a copying error.
  2. A pair of characters (ΣΕ) gets added into a small gap. Maybe there was not enough room? The two letters mark the end of the previous word and the start of the next, respectively.
  3. We’re missing an Ν from this word (ΜΑΡΤΥΡΟΥΝΤΕΣ “marturountes”- bear witness to). The overbar indicates this abbreviation, it can also be seen in the same word in the Codex Vaticanus, below.
  4. This is the word for ‘spirit’ (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ,”pneuma”, spirit is also the word for breath, and this is where we get the word pneumonia). It was conventional from very early on to write certain words as acronyms. We call these ‘nomina sacra’* – sacred names, because most commonly they are names (although words like ‘cross’ are also abbreviated in this way). Here we get it written ΠΝΑ. The bar over the top of the word is often used to indicate abbreviation.
1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus

The same text 1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the Codex Vaticanus, for comparison. Vaticanus is a very similar text to Sinaiticus, from the same text family. But still there are thousands of differrences. See if you can spot the differences in just this passage. Apologies for the quality of this scan, I'm using the Vatican's own published scans, which are pretty low quality.

And finally you notice that the words are all written into one another. There are no word spacings and words are free to continue over the end of the line without this being indicated. The red squares show word boundaries.

[Quick note, in my modern greek font, the capital sigma appears as Σ, but you’ll notice in the text it looks more like a C – letter forms change over time and between regions]

I know that’s a very short passage, but I hope it gives the sense of how dense these texts are, and how much effort it takes to engage with them as a textual critic. I don’t have the patience to do this kind of work, although I do love the manuscripts themselves. I’m very much glad I can just buy a critical copy of the NT and have the hard work done for me!

* A challenge for anyone who knows a bit of greek: You can see two more ΠΝΑ abbreviations on the same page – one on the top line (overbar is half-clipped off the image) and one at the start of the third line. There is another nomina sacra at the bottom of the page: ΘΥ for “God”. But 10 points for any readers who can spot the other two in the image.


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Sunday Scriptures: Sex

Sunday is a busy day here, as its the only day we all get to spend together as a family. So in this weekly spot I’ll dig out some interesting bits of religious literature and will post them without much comment.

[EDIT: Apologies – I scheduled this post wrong, so it is only appearing on Monday!]

Inspired by a post on the Song of Solomon over at the Redheaded Skeptic, I thought it would be interesting to post some scripture on the subject of sex. Some juicy, life affirming stuff. As per the Song itself:

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

– Song of Solomon 2:2-3

Unfortunately when I came to search through the indices to various scriptures for similar stuff I found that the odds were against me. Far more common was stuff like this:

The Buddha said: “Be careful not to look at women and do not talk with them. If you must speak with them, be properly mindful and think, ‘I am a Shramana living in a turbid world. I should be like the lotus flower and not be defiled by the mud.'”

– Sutra of Forty-two Sections: 29

Hmm. Not so good. Well, there’s always the Karma Sutra, of course. But that’s hardly what you’d call scripture. It reads more like a taxonomy of sex than a celebration of it:

When the legs of both the male and the female are stretched straight out over each other, it is called the ‘clasping position’. It is of two kinds, the side position and the supine position, according to the way in which they lie down. In the side position the male should invariably lie on his left side, and cause the woman to lie on her right side, and this rule is to be observed in lying down with all kinds of women.

– Karma Sutra:6

Reads like a sex-ed book. (Incidentally ‘all kinds of women’ here isn’t talking about promiscuity – the Karma Sutra classifies women into ‘kinds’ based on the depth of their vagina. No, really. Not surprisingly they don’t tend to go into that stuff in the “Karma Sutra” books you buy in the west. Nor do they print the chapter (9) on how male eunuchs give fellatio.)

Nope. Depressingly, affirmation of sex in scripture seems to be pretty unusual (please provide counter-examples). I’ll leave you with the most depressing thing I read:

The mouth is a vessel filled with foul
Saliva and filth between the teeth,
The nose with fluids, snot, and mucus,
The eyes with their own filth and tears.

The body is a vessel filled
With excrement, urine, lungs, and liver;
He whose vision is obscured and does not see
A woman thus, lusts for her body.

This filthy city of a body,
With protruding holes for the elements
Is called by stupid beings
An object of pleasure.

Why should you lust desirously for this
While recognizing it as a filthy form
Produced by a seed whose essence is filth,
A mixture of blood and semen?

He who lies on the filthy mass
Covered by skin moistened with
Those fluids, merely lies
On top of a woman’s bladder.

– Ratnavali, by Nagarjuna (considered sacred by some Buddhists)

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Why I Study the Bible

I often get asked why I study the bible if I’m an atheist. Here’s a quick compilation of my reasons:

  • The bible is the most important document in western cultural history (since it was the scripture of the institution that wielded power in the west for at least 1200 years).
  • It is the best preserved, copied, attested and studied ancient text we have. Early copies are available in multiple languages, from multiple cultures and theologies. This makes it a fascinating and fruitful text to study (if you’re going to study any ancient text, of course).
  • It is a text with many unanswered questions that have a possibility of being answered. There are riddles to be solved, and it is taking a multidisciplinary effort to solve them.
  • It contains poetry and expression of extraordinary beauty, morality and sensitivity, alongside expressions of the most ugly, debased and depraved sentiments humanity can suffer. There is no better place to study the human condition than in the bible.
  • It is a book that is highly politically active. A sizable proprtion of our society wants to give their readings of its dark fantasies authority over our lives.

And here are some reasons for reading the bible I don’t have!

  • It is the only written communication of the creator of the universe to his creation.
  • It gives us the reliable history of the incarnation of God in human form.
  • It is a book with genuine spiritual or supernatural power.
  • It is the best guide to human morality and mutual responsibility.
  • It is the greatest story ever told!


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Sunday Scriptures: The Source of Suffering

Sunday is a busy day here, as its the only day we all get to spend together as a family. So in this weekly spot I’ll dig out some interesting bits of religious literature and will post them without much comment.

Today’s scriptural tour looks at: where suffering comes from.

Formerly Prajapati brought forth pure creatures, who were truthful and virtuous. These creatures joined the gods in the sky whenever they wished, and they lived and died by their own wish. In another time, those who dwelt on earth were covercome by desire and anger, and they were abandoned by the gods. Then by their foul deads these evil ones were trapped in the chain of rebirth, and they became atheists.

– Mahabharata, 3.181.11-20

Seems that desire and anger are the killers. And I particularly like the translation of the last word – I’m sure Sabio could give us a better idea of the word’s fuller meaning.

Here’s an alternative explanation, with a very mechanistic feel (might be just the translation, of course).

Through wrong belief, indulgence, negligence, passions, and activites, the individual self attracts particles of matter which are fit to turn into karma, as the self is actuated by passions. This influx of karma results in bondage.

– Tattvartha Sutra 8.1-2 (a text sacred to the Jains)

Now ‘activities’ lead to bondage? whats the alternative?

And my own tradition:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

– Romans 5.12-14 (NIV)

The bleakest of all – you can do everything right and you’ll still be doomed to suffer. Its all Adam’s fault. Though if you read on in Romans, it seems Paul has a cunning plan…

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