Clunky Rom 1:8-17 – The translational issues get real

In this passage we start to deal with some of the nitty-gritty problems of translating Romans, particularly what to with words with the roots δικ- and  πιστ-. For δικ-, do you choose to consistently use English words with the right– root or the just– root? Or do you switch back and forth depending on the context?

Similarly with πιστ-, do you choose faith, trust, belief/believe? Particularly, what about πιστις? Faith? Faithfulness? Belief? Trust? Trustworthiness? Or interestingly, the option noted in LSJ (p. 1408 or here ) of “that which gives confidence: hence…means of persuasion, argument, proof.” Given the interest in the last few decades in Paul’s use of rhetoric and its importance for understanding his letters, it seems surprising that we have not heard more about this use of πιστις and its potential for illuminating what Paul is trying to say.

The upshot of these issues for the task at hand is that I have included a limited set of the variety of possible options for these important terms separated with virgules. While this is exceptionally clunky (you were warned!), there is no other way I can think of to keep students mindful of, say, the dual sense of righteous (religious) + just (legal/secular) present in the word δικαιος.

Note: implied elements or alternate ways of saying things (e.g., “barbarians” for “non-Greeks”) are set in brackets.

Romans 1:8-17

8 First, I thank my God for you all through Jesus the anointed one because your faith/belief is proclaimed in the whole cosmos 9 for my witness is the God whom I worship in my spirit in the great-announcement of his son, how I make remembrance of you all unceasingly, 10 always in my prayers mentioning if somehow at some time I might be put in the right way in the will of God to come to you, 11 for I am longing to see you in order that I might pass on [to you all] a spiritual gift-of-favor unto you being made firm, 12 and this is, to be encouraged together among you, through your faith/belief and mine, among one another. 13 But I do not want you to be unknowing, siblings, that many times I publicly displayed/made known [my desire] to come to you in order that I might reap some fruit among you just as also among the other non-Jews [Gentiles]—but have been hindered until now. 14 To the Greeks and non-Greeks [“barbarians”], to the wise and to the mindless, I am a debtor. 15 Just so, I am eager to give-the-great-announcement also to you in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the great-announcement, for it is the power of God unto deliverance for all those believing/trusting, for the Jew first and for the Greek. 17 For the righteousness/justice of God in him is revealed, from faith/belief/trust unto faith/belief/trust, just as it is written, “The one who is righteous/just from believing/trusting will live.” [Hab. 2:4]


My “Best of SBL” 2013

As it appears to be de rigueur to debrief SBL[1], I present below my humble offering. (I have left out an enumeration of the many good friends and new acquaintances whom it was delightful to see. There was also food and drink, as every year [though not enough of it free, as every year], and a lot of walking and surprisingly inclement weather, as every year. I spare you the details.)

Best of 2013

The Mark Seminar—This group is lively in the best ways. The seminar format means that members submit papers ahead of time to others actively working on the Gospel of Mark; when they gather, each paper writer offers a 10 minute summary of her or his paper, and then there is extended time for the seminar participants to discuss the paper with the author and each other. This year’s topic was the relationship of Mark to the Pauline epistles. A number of top scholars are members of the group, and there was significant engagement, particularly of the final paper which addressed similarities between Paul’s and Mark’s Christologies, particularly in the parallel conceptions of Jesus as Second Adam (Paul) and Son of Man (Mark). The possibility that both Paul and Mark understood Jesus to be a divinely empowered messianic human but not a person who was both human and divine (“God incarnate”) sparked much debate. It was one of most passionate yet respectful exchanges of arguments and counter arguments I have seen at SBL. If you weren’t there, you missed out.

Borges and Scripture—This session of the Reading, Theory, and the Bible group took up the relation of the writings Jorge Luis Borges to scripture—either through Borges’ use of scripture or simply ways in which the writings were mutual illuminating. All of the papers were engaging, thought-provoking, excellent, and very different. Particularly memorable was Rhiannon Graybill’s (Rhodes College) paper looking at the dangers of the “found book” in Borges, H. P. Lovecraft, and 2 Kings 22, and a paper by Richard Walsh (Methodist University) looking at how imaginary books with real content and, conversely, real books with imaginary content in Borges can be illuminating for our thinking about the Q source for the synoptics.

Derrida and Caputo in Congregations—Every year there is some attempt at devoting one or more sessions to how academic study of the Bible, theology, and religion affects the life of actual worship communities. I can’t say I have ever found any of the topics interesting enough that I was inspired to attend one until now. I could only stay for the first half, and so only heard three presentations in this session sponsored by the folks at Homebrewed Christianity, the highlight of which was the opening paper by leaders of the St. Lydia’s house church in Brooklyn. The presenters demonstrated deep reflection on the topic and how, contrary to what many might expect, a profoundly post-modern perspective can lead to both beautiful sacramental theology and a community that finds joy and belonging in the midst of brokenness.

Women in the Biblical World—The Sunday session this year was a performance and discussion of selections from the book Lady Parts: Biblical Women and The Vagina Monologues (Wipf & Stock). I stayed only for the performances and skipped the discussion, and while most of the creative monologues of biblical women lacked the gritty reality of the work that inspired the project, a couple of them were particularly good: both the monologues of Jael and Mary Magdalene were insightful, undermined stereotypes, and were well-performed by Lise Porter and Jo-Ann Badley, respectively. Theological/biblical performance art is, to be honest, often cringe-worthy. This was not, and that cannot be anything other than a highlight.

 Next post—

The true highlight of the weekend


The exciting, mostly behind-the-scenes conversations that might—just might—make a difference for the future.

[1] SBL = the annual conference for members of the Society of Biblical Literature. It meets concurrently with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Basically 12,000 academic people from North America and (to a lesser extent) Europe who teach and write about the Bible, theology, and religion get together and read papers to each other and discuss topics of widely varying interest.

The former glory and hope–Haggai sermon, part 2

Haggai is in the delicate place of needing to refocus the people on the future while affirming the goodness of the past. He does this in a couple of ways, ways that can help us when we are in that place of navigating our own relationship to the past.

First, he tells the people to “take courage” or more literally “be strong.” By doing this he acknowledges that there is fear—fear of the future, fear of loss, fear of disappointment—and that moving forward is going to take courage, it will require people to draw on their inner strength. Whether on a group or individual level, naming and facing the fear and disappointment is essential to moving into the future with hope.

So, what reason do the people have to move from fear and disappointment toward hope? It is God’s presence with them. This is not a vague platitude. This combined with the previous exhortation to “be strong” are words that echo through stories from Israel’s past, particularly moments in their past when they were facing the challenges of an unclear future, establishing themselves in a land full of difficulty—As they stood on the edge of the Promised land at the end of Moses’ life, he said to them “It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” As they were entering the land, now with Joshua as their leader, God told Joshua “Be strong and very courageous” and promised “I will be with you just as I was with Moses.” The promise of God’s presence is the promise that grounds their strength and courage in the face of change and ensures the future for God’s people.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk amongst people who pay attention to societal trends, especially trends that affect the church, noting a distinct rise in people who claim their religious affiliation to be “none.” These are people who do not see themselves connected to any identifiable religious tradition. The overall percentage of such people in the US has risen 5 percentage points in the just the last 5 years to 20%. That means 1 in 5 people you meet has no connection to religion. If the person is between 18 and 30, the percentage is higher—1/3 of people in that group say they have no religious tradition.

All of this sounds like bad news. And it has resulted in a lot of hand-wringing and dire predictions that this is THE END OF THE CHURCH, that the church as an institution faces a changed culture and that it is not—and never will be again—the vibrant place that it was. In this situation, many are looking back to the past and wondering where the glory has gone.

What is the word of the Lord that Haggai brings to such a time? “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give, prosperity says the LORD of hosts.” The word there that is translated prosperity is the Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom, as many of you probably know, is a word with an abundance of meanings. It is often translated as peace, but it also means, as it is translated here, prosperity. It means abundance, right relationships, flourishing—in short, it means all things in the world being as God intended. The future that God intends and indeed promises is a future of flourishing life.

This is just what Jesus is getting at at the end of the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus is in a controversy with people who do not believe that there is a resurrection. Jesus’ answer is that the Lord—unlike the Egyptian god Osiris or the Greek god Hades—is not a god of the dead, but a God of the living, and if that is the case, those whose God he is, though they have experienced death, will experience God’s life anew. They are promised life not just as an optimistic hope, but as a conclusion about the character of God—that God as the most living thing there is does not allow death to have the last word.
When we recognize this—the power of God’s life and promise of a future of shalom—it changes how we live. In last week’s Gospel lesson we heard Luke’s version of the beatitudes, and the command to give to anyone who asks from you and that if someone wants your coat, you should give your shirt as well. Why do we find that so hard to live out? Because the world has trained us to think in terms of scarcity. In an economy of scarcity, the only sensible thing is to become a hoarder, to protect yourself against loss, to cling to what you have. But the economy of the kingdom is not based on fear that causes us to grasp, it is grounded in the promised flourishing that flows from the source of life and abundance—an abundance so great that we can let go of what is in our hands. God is at work to bring forth a future in which the glory of the past will be eclipsed by that which is yet to be. The economy of God’s kingdom is an economy of abundance and resurrection life springing from death.

In a few minutes we will come to the Lord’s table. There we will take bread that is broken, just as Christ’s body experienced the brokenness and pain of our lives. But, we believe, because of the promise of God, even in brokenness, we experience communion with God in taking that bead—we experience the resurrection life of Christ because we are joined to him and share in his life and blood. We become participants in that future of abundance and shalom as we take hold of that promise, that promise that is made tangible in the elements.

Change is hard. The future can be scary—it is unknown and out of our control. But God says, “I am with you. I bring life from death. You have a future. A future not dependent on your ability to anticipate it, but on my presence and my promise which are already there waiting for you. My spirit abides among you; The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD; and in this place I will give shalom.”

A new translation of Romans–awkward, clunky, and (hopefully) very helpful

As some of you know, I have started on a project of translating Romans.

“For God’s sake, why do we need another translation of any of the books of the Bible, much less Romans, a book that has been studied almost to death?” I hear the universe call out.

My reasons have to do with trying to teach NT to undergrads who have no Greek. There are certain goals that I have with this translation, goals that will likely result in a translation that is awkward and clunky but, I hope, also helpful.

The goals are:

1. Translate similarly-rooted Greek words with similarly-rooted English words so that students can see the connections Paul is making.
The place this really is important is with the translation of words with the δικ- root. For a term of this importance in Paul’s argument to be alternately translated with right– and just– roots (as is the common practice of English translations) is obscuring the connections that one ought to make. There are many other such verbal connections, too, however, and hopefully this translation will make it possible for English readers to trace those.

2. Translate words that have become freighted with the baggage of religious-ese in ways that make more clear their secular connotations.
Words like gospel, savior, and grace have become so spiritualized that it is very hard for students to hear them as anything other than “churchy” words. This cuts off many meanings and connotations that need to be intact.

3. Translate words indicating logical connections with appropriate force.
Much of Paul’s argument depends on the logical connections and conclusions he draws. Eliminating the connector words altogether (poor γαρ ends up in the bin a lot) or translating them with a weak, throw-away word like “So,” doesn’t help students see how Paul’s ideas hang together.

So, what does this look like? Here’s 1:1-7 for your amusement, consternation, and/or comments.

1:1 Paul, a slave of God, called to be one-sent-out/a messenger, separated out into God’s great-announcement 2 (which he announced ahead of time through his prophets in the holy writings) 3 concerning his son who was generated from the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 separated as “son of God” in power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus the Messiah, our master, 5 through whom we have received favor and sent-out-ness for the sake of his name unto the hearkening of faith in all the non-Jews, 6 in which you are, and you are the called of Jesus Christ;

7 To: all those in Rome beloved of God, holy called-ones—Favor to you, and peace from God your father and from the master, Jesus the Messiah.

The former glory and our ambivalent relationship to the past–a sermon on Haggai 2

Lord, Open our hearts to hear your word of hope and promise for us today and give us the strength to order our thoughts and lives in accord with it, now and in the days to come.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I come from a family of savers. The women in my family, especially, are notorious savers, not only of things potentially useful or important (a category including lightly used tinfoil and 15 year old credit card statements) but especially of anything that might have sentimental value. My father jokes that my mother has saved every piece of paper I ever set a crayon to. This is an exaggeration, certainly, but he has a point: there is a tendency in my family to wax nostalgic and cling to things that remind us of our family’s past. These things seem to provide a connection back to the events and people that are now gone.

I myself—and I perhaps some of you also—find myself ambivalent in navigating how I hold onto the past, both through the material things I hold onto—souvenirs, pictures, family antiques of widely varying quality and usefulness—and through the ideas and memories I hold onto. I think most of us are pretty happy to forget about big chunks of our personal past (I know I would not be worse off if I was never again reminded of junior high!), but what about the good things or even just neutral things?
If we as individuals are ambivalent about this, I think we see this also reflected in our culture—an attitude that manifests itself, on the one hand, in an almost overwhelming push to “leave the past behind,” have the newest of everything from cars to phones, and actively reject old modes of acting and thinking, while on the other hand there is simultaneously a fascination with the past (witness everything from historical re-enactors of battles and historical events to the renewed popularity of Jane Austen novels to a market for “antiques” and vintage items that are barely 20 years old); for some, this fascination borders on obsession. The people featured on the TV show “Hoarders” are simply the far end of the spectrum of a fear that nags at the back of most of our minds—the fear of loss and fear of the future. Fear that there won’t be enough. Fear that we will lose the things we love—whether they are people or memories or physical things and places that are meaningful and familiar to us.

The people of Israel faced similar fears in Haggai’s time. In case you’re a little sketchy on the place of the minor prophets in the timeline of the history of Israel (and who isn’t!), let me fill you in: The year is 520 b.c. Approximately 80 years earlier, generals of the Babylonian empire had come from the north, besieged and conquered Jerusalem, destroying the temple there that King Solomon had built, and carrying away into exile many if not most of the Jews. After 70 years in exile in Babylon, a new ruler, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return to their land begin rebuilding their city and their temple. The work is slow however. And the new temple that is being constructed is, apparently, a pretty significant disappointment to some who either remember the previous temple or have heard of its beauty and grandeur. God through Haggai, names the grumbling undercurrent among the people: “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”

Compounding the problem, undoubtedly, is not just the memory of the past but the prophecies of Haggai’s predecessors. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied that, although God’s people would go into exile for their unfaithfulness to God, after their punishment was over, God would bring them back to the land, and the reestablished nation of Israel would be more glorious than the previous—it would be prosperous, it would be ruled by ideal kings reigning over faithful people, and the glory of Mount Zion where the Temple sits would be such that the non-Jewish nations, the Gentiles, would marvel at it and stream to it to worship the Lord.

The reality was, to say the least, a let down.

The people are disappointed. They are tempted to compare the present to the past—a past that was, of course, glorious in some respects, but was far from perfect—the earlier prophets pointed out the injustices toward the poor in the land, corruption in the government, that worship that had become mere formality to buy off God’s favor, and the idolatry or power and wealth among the people. For these, the judgement of God came on God’s people, but now the returned exiles remember only the good things of the past. The “glory days” of Jerusalem and the temple…..

(To be continued)

The Power of a Symbol

Many today are posting remembrances of 9/11 in various media. People are recalling and reflecting on their horror, shock, grief, and sense of loss, and also on the courage and hope and the determination to carry on in the face of events that caused us to reassess our security and our place in the world.

The bombing of WTC was a symbolic act. While there was certainly no small loss of life, the choice to bomb that location rather than another was apparently made not for its potential to inflict maximum citizen casualties but for its symbolic value: the WTC, as a symbol of America’s global influence through commerce, was an obvious target for people feeling threatened by more than just the US’s overt political and military power in the world. The other buildings targeted that day expressed the terrorists’ anger over those more obvious fears.

But what if the target in New York had been different, had been something else?

Today I began teaching an online class on the Old Testament Prophets. Much of the recorded proclamations of the prophets is related to the national tragedy of conquest and exile—an experience that included, at least for the Southern Kingdom, the destruction of a nationally symbolic building, the Jerusalem Temple.[1]

When I teach undergrads and we begin considering the significance of the Temple, I ask them to think back to 9/11. Though many of them were only in the early years of grade school at the time, they remember the shock and horror and the feelings of vulnerability and loss of safety (perhaps picked up mostly vicariously from the adults around them). Most of them can see how the loss of the Temple in the Babylonian’s sacking of Jerusalem was more than just a loss of property; it was a loss of something that symbolized a significant aspect of Judah’s nationhood.

However, the first Temple, like the WTC, was not an unambiguous symbolic structure. The prophets before and after criticized the priesthood for corruption. The division of Israel into Northern and Southern Kingdoms with separate centers of worship meant that the Temple did not represent the aspirations of all of God’s people but became half of the symbolic equation that represented the tensions about right worship, sovereignty, and kingly succession. The destruction of the WTC was in part a protest against things that many Americans were also uncomfortable with in our country: economic imperialism and consumerist excesses that depended on exploiting the rest of the world to feed an insatiable appetite. While no one could justify the action, many Americans might not have embraced the WTC as a symbol of our country prior to the bombing.

But the WTC was not only possible target in the NYC area. When I ask my undergrads to think about the symbolic value of a Temple and what its destruction might mean, I ask them to imagine that the 9/11 bombers had targeted not the WTC but the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes there are actual gasps. The general consensus is that, had that been the case, the reaction of the US would have been much more violent and much more unanimous. The WTC was a modern, practical structure, symbolic of questionable aspirations. The Statue stands almost universally for the deepest and most cherished ideas about what is good and admirable in America’s history and hopes. To have attacked that would have been to attack Americanness itself at its best.

This unfulfilled possibility, I tell my students, is more like the trauma of the destruction of the Second Temple—a building that became so symbolic of the religious and ethnic identity of the Jews that in the century preceding its destruction in 70 a.d., every Jew in the Roman Empire contributed to its upkeep—people who had never seen nor would ever visit the Temple looked to it as symbolic of their identity and their future as a people now far-flung from their homeland.

Whatever happens in future conflicts between America and groups or nations, the significance of symbolic structures—and the ramifications of their destruction—must never be ignored.

WTC and Lady 9-11

[1] It is possible that this was true for the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well, but since the majority of the OT seems to have been written or edited by Judeans, the significance of that conquest and loss is downplayed, and the possible importance and legitimacy of an alternative temple in the north is undercut.

On Playing Your Weak Suit

I recently agreed to help a new Lutheran on-line seminary that was in need of a biblical studies professor to teach their course on the Prophets. I said yes with some hesitation. New Testament is my specialty, and when I’ve taught the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in intro survey courses, I’ve never quite known what to do with the Prophets.[1] It is not, by any means, my strongest suit. There are plenty of other things I could teach and feel confident, sure of what I wanted to communicate and how to execute the maneuvers needed to do so. While it will certainly be a good opportunity to get a clearer idea of what I think needs to be said about those texts, it will not be my most polished performance

“How’s it going there, Picasso? Actually, maybe I should say Michelangelo, since you’re up by the roof.” I note to my husband that painting the garage trim isn’t nearly as artistic or as arduous as painting the Sistine Chapel.

He replies, “And you know what’s so amazing? Michelangelo wasn’t even mainly a painter. He considered himself really a sculptor. Amazing.”

What’s your specialty? Sometimes we focus so much on playing to our strengths that we miss opportunities to play through our perceived weaknesses. We specialize to the point of discounting ourselves from doing anything other than what we know we can master with ease. We avoid projects that might turn out to be our less-than-best work. Thankfully Michelangelo was willing to play his weak suit, and not just his strong.

[1] Since this will be a seminary course and thus students will be interested in preaching faithfully on the prophetic texts, the many possible directions I could go and the myriad texts we could focus on are significantly pared down, but still, it’s well outside the comfort zone.