Friday, July 30, 2004


7/28 -- William Tyndale - How accurate his translation was.

7/20 -- Historical Amnesia

7/11 -- We Trivialize the Problem of Racism

7/4 -- The Jerusalem Perspective Web Site

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


It would be an understatement to say that we have forgotten how great (i.e., how accurate) was Tyndale's translation of the Bible. It would even be an understatement to say that we have simply forgotten all about him. let alone how good his work is. Except for his major champion, David Daniell, most scholars just glance over him or pay him no attention.

Tyndale was the first to translate most of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles into English from the original languages rather than from the Latin as had previously been done. Almost every translation since has been dependent on him. And while scholars love to praise the King James translation to the skies (it was completed 75 years after Tyndale was executed at the stake for his troubles), they conveniently forget that over 80% of the King James New Testament (I have seen estimates ranging from 83% to 90%) is pure Tyndale.

When I read scholars discussing ways of improving the translation of the Greek scriptures, they never go back to check what Tyndale did. They usually point out some mistake the King James translators made and then assume that all the earliest translations were equally at fault. Actually, if you do bother to check Tyndale, you will find that, more often than not, he was correct. I will give just two examples here.

In the King James, at Matt 26:26, "Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples." The Greek does not have the word "it". It merely says that Jesus took bread and blessed and broke and gave. Now Tyndale inserted the word "it" only after broke and gave, which is not so wrong as what else could Jesus have broken and given.

But Tyndale did not put "it" after "blessed". In fact, he did not use "blessed" at all. He translated "[Jesus] gave thanks" (from his 1534 edition). I think Tyndale understood that Jesus blessed God or gave thanks to God, which is what Hebrew blessings or prayers do. Jesus did not bless the bread as the King James has it. He blessed God. Tyndale was right.

A second example comes from Matt 28:1. When did the women come to Jesus' burial site? The Greek says they came at "the shining of the first of the week". But the shining of the day is a Hebrew expression which refers to when the stars come out to shine. Sunset is the beginning of the day. That is when the women came (in other words, as soon as Shabbat had ended), not at dawn on Sunday.

Tyndale again had this right. He refers to even or evening: "The sabbath day at even which dawneth the morrow after the sabbath ...". By "dawneth", which confuses things a bit, I believe he just meant "begins". But he clearly speaks of the "sabbath day at even". (I once read somewhere that Jerome, in his Latin translation, understood it this way too.) The King James version turned this into "as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week", thus contributing to the idea that it must have been dawn on Sunday.

These are perhaps a couple of small points, but they indicate how careful Tyndale was. In the very first paragraph of his introduction to the reader, Tyndale points out how many Hebraisms are in the Greek text. He knew exactly what he was doing. By the way, his 1534 work is available in paperback as "Tyndale's New Testament" (Yale University Press), a modern-spelling edition by David Daniell.

So why has Tyndale been shoved out of memory? After all, he had as great an impact on the English language as William Shakespeare. He had an impact on Shakespeare himself, who was born about 30 years after Tyndale died. Shakespeare quoted from the Geneva Bible, the most popular Bible of the day, and, like every other Bible, it was utterly dependent on Tyndale.

Imagine if someone had taken Shakespeare's plays, changed a few sentences but otherwise remained faithful to 85% of them, and then published this slightly altered version under his own name -- and ever since they have been known as, say, the Johnson plays (or whatever the name of this hypothetical person might have been)! Can you imagine such a scandal? Yet this is exactly what has happened to Tyndale. And there has been no general outcry at the injustice.

To be fair to the King James translators, they never claimed to be making an entirely new translation. In their introduction, they wrote, "we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one ... but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one ...". But then, they did not mention Tyndale by name and give him the main credit. They were silent as to who created this.

We can only speculate about this disgraceful neglect of Tyndale which continues today, but I think there are basically two reasons for it.

One is that his work is so good. It is a vivid reminder of how Hebrew or Jewish the New Testament is, especially the Synoptic Gospels. It is a key to Jesus' Jewishness. Too many people would rather forget that. Historical accuracy rather than theology was Tyndale's primary motivation. That is still a no-no in Gospel scholarship.

Second, he did the unthinkable. He took the Bible away from the "experts" (such as theologians and secular scholars) and gave it back to the people, so they could have direct access to an excellent translation. (Nor did he claim that his work could never be bettered; he challenged others to improve it.) He wanted people to know what Jesus said and did, not what popular or theological stories invented about him. These days, when staged readings of the Gospels are still all too common, Tyndale's work is incredibly refreshing. Our culture, our scholarly world, has still not forgiven him for that.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004


If only this were possible. I think most of us think that the past causes a lot of problems. We'd love to forget the past and start the world over -- much as the early American colonists thought they were doing. To begin the world over again -- that's how Thomas Paine put it in his famous pamphlet. The question, of course, is whether it is possible.

I actually know of one person who was handed a bit of historical amnesia by accident and benefitted from it. His name is Arthur Strimling. I mentioned him a couple of posts back (June 27). He is a storyteller from Brooklyn. But he was raised in Minnesota by Jewish parents who brought him up with a secular education. He had no awareness of his Jewishness.

One day at school, he checked off the box "None" in answer to the question of religious identity. His teacher told him this was not acceptable. He must be something. He should go home and ask his parents what he is. His parents told him that his family ancestry was Jewish so he could probably put that. That's what he did. It pleased his teacher very much. You see? Now you're something. You can't be nothing. You're Jewish.

A few weeks later, it was the end of an ice hockey game with some friends. Arthur was taking off his skates. Two of his friends had gotten into a nasty verbal fight. One was Catholic and the other was Lutheran (of Norwegian origin). They were hurling insults at each other, like fish eater and Lutefisk eater (I have not had Lutefisk, a dried Norwegian fish dish, but am told it is definitely an acquired taste).

Arthur was enjoying the fight immensely, laughing his head off. Then they noticed him. What are you laughing at!? What the hell are you!? Arthur thought it over for a moment. He did not know what to say. But he remembered that, a couple of weeks before, he had told his teacher he was Jewish and this seemed to please her. Maybe his friends would like it too. So he told them he was Jewish. They gasped and started cursing him out. Christ killer!, they called him. He had never heard that before and thought it was a very clever and funny insult. It delighted him.

When he got home, he told his parents what a great day it had been and the brilliant insult his friends had hurled at him. I think it was their turn to gasp. This is not a good thing, they said and explained some of the sad history of this. He was quiet about his Jewishness after that. It was many years before he began to explore his Jewish roots.

But for a brief moment in time, Arthur was free from pain. His story made me aware that many things hurt us only because they have a history to them and we are aware of that history. Take that history away and the insults don't hurt. If only we could erase the past. But is that possible?

That's the theme of a British film "The Return of the Soldier" (1982). It was directed by Alan Bridges and based on a novel by Rebecca West. It features an amazing cast: Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, and Ian Holm. Bates plays a soldier returned from the war (WWI, I think). The trauma of the war and possibly also the death of his child have given him amnesia. As a result, he reverts to childlike behavior. This causes considerable embarrassment for his wife (Christie) who is concerned about what the neighbors think.

She hires a psychiatrist (Ian Holm) to cure him. But an old girlfriend (Glenda Jackson) of the husband turns up and is appalled by what they are planning to do. He is so happy now, why disturb that? You can't make him happy, she tells the psychiatrist, you can only make him ordinary. The doctor agrees she is right. "If he remembers, he'll never be happy again", she continues. "It would be the cruelest thing in the world to make him remember again." The doctor sums up his outlook in a single sentence: "Pain cannot be avoided by pretending it doesn't exist."

Eventually, the old girlfriend agrees. She visits the nursery of the couple's dead child, which has been perfectly preserved, and recalls the death of her own child. She starts crying and yet continues to resist the doctor's insight. Finally, she admits he is right. "You can't shut out pain like this and pretend it never happened. That's not happiness. It's make-believe. The truth's the truth."

I would not say it is a great film, though it has a great theme. It does not convince you of the truth of its insight so much as simply assert it. Perhaps Rebecca West's novel did a more convincing job.

But the film does raise a great question. And what's the answer? I tend to agree that you cannot shut out the past. Maybe for a moment you can be happy in never-never land as Arthur Strimling was, but sooner or later, someone is going to hit you in the face with history. If his parents had not told him, he would have crashed into reality a few more times before he learned that his friends were not playing. The world would have made sure that he would not forget his station in life.

So I am afraid there is only one way out: To dive into history and rescue it from the lies we have imposed on it. I do mean "I am afraid". Because I don't think there is any use denying that many people oppose this process and will make it difficult. Historical truth on certain subjects upsets a lot of people, not least of all scholars. But despite the often sickening fear, I plunge on. It's not courage. I am just more afraid of what will happen if we leave the past unexamined.

When people are afraid of historical truth -- e.g., the full truth about Jesus' Jewishness or about how Jewish leaders tried to save his life -- they will do almost anything to keep it from coming out. Including censorship and persecution. And at the very least rhetoric: Don't mess with the past! Don't rake it up! Let sleeping dogs lie! No one has a right to interfere with our traditions about the past! A rational search for the truth is irrelevant in the face of tradition! And on and on.

Not for nothing did Harry Truman say, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." But we shut out the new. We keep it unknown. What we love is repetition of the old -- historical amnesia, that is.

The world does not begin anew each day, not even if you try to cut yourself off from the past, as some Americans have always felt was possible. Somebody will always remind you of history -- or some imagined version of it.

Ironically, the world could begin anew if we made an effort to tell the truth about history -- about what has been left out, as Truman realized. That gives us something new. The silenced voices of history are truly a new world and give us the freedom to find a new future instead of the endless repetition of one version of the past that is no future at all.

Sunday, July 11, 2004


Our society has learned to take certain problems, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, very seriously. We know that you never quite get over it. If you ask someone who has suffered from alcoholism and who has not touched a drop in yen years whether he is still an alcoholic, he will answer (if he has any sense), "Yes, I am. I am a recovering alcoholic." It is a sign of how deep the disease is. You will always be recovering, always on the lookout for danger.

But we don't have a similar insight for racism. We think that racism is not a deep problem at all. We think it is completely curable. You simply learn that all people are equal (i.e., there is no scientific evidence that one people is superior to all others) and voila! The problem is solved! No more racism. Gone. As if it never was. We have not yet begun to understand that there are only recovering racists. The danger is ever present for all of us.

What inspired these comments is a remark in Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's book "Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation" (2000). (There should be a double dot over the "u" in her middle name but I cannot do it on this computer.) On p. 119, she mentions "what Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite pointed out some time ago: Racism is a chronic disease and every one of us is like a recovering alcoholic who can never come completely clean."

Schussler Fiorenza then applies this to scholarly study of the Bible, the Gospels in particular: "None of us, despite consistent effort, can ever quite consider ourselves to be cured of the disease of internalized anti-Judaism." On the next page (120), she gives an example of anti-Jewishness from her own writing. It was her students who brought it to her attention.

Of course, Schussler Fiorenza is a bit ahead of everyone else. The problem of racist assumptions in Gospel scholarship is ongoing precisely because we are all too proud to admit that we have a really serious, deep problem here. And it is not only anti-Jewishness that creates misreading of the Gospels. There is another type of racism we will not acknowledge, which afflicts most of us.

We all have a deep prejudice against so-called primitive cultures, including ancient peoples whom we regard as less sophisticated than our own. We think that only we know how to distinguish fact from myth. We imagine that "primitive" people are infantile and cannot separate what really happened from the fiction they spin out of the events of their time.

Our attitude is similar to the one we once held about "primitive" languages. Western culture used to imagine that only European languages and Greek and Hebrew have grammar. When other cultures around the world were discovered, Europeans thought that their languages were a kind of baby talk without grammar. We now know that all languages have grammar.

The same is true of any people's sense of history. All peoples have a grammar of history. There is no people for whom fact and fiction get so mixed up that it is impossible to tell one from the other. This is just as true of the Gospel writers. They too have a grammar of history. Solve it and you can understand the historical facts that underlie their accounts. It is only sheer racism that prevents us from seeing it.

No one, for example, ever leaps from a mistake appearing in The New York Times or in The London Times to the conclusion that the entire newspaper is untrustworthy. Despite the mistakes or contradictions or occasional outright fraud that appears in these papers, we go on assuming that they are sources of valid information. But in our racist sense of superiority, we adopt a double standard for "primitve" and ancient peoples such as the writers of the Bible: If one little contradiction appears in the Bible, we declare that the whole thing is historically suspect. We have a very different standard for the "other" that we never apply to our own culture.

I will finish this up by giving an example of one way that I am a recovering racist. Ever since I was a child, I have been enormously sympathetic towards the American Indian. As a Jew, I always identified with their sufferings and the injustices inflicted on them. Then one day, I realized that, whenever I thought about the original colonies, I pictured vast, lush green forests, clean rivers, mountains, a wealth of resources, and the first European colonists making the land blossom -- but no Indians. The land was empty, ours for the taking.

I have erased the Indians from history. It is the product of my education as a child. It is still my instinct to picture this land as originally filled with all sorts of natural resources, but no Indians. That will always be my first image. I correct it now, but I will never entirely get rid of it. Despite all the empathy I have always had for Indians, I will always be a recovering racist towards them. The danger is always there.

And that still unacknowledged danger has ruined Gospel studies. Perhaps forever. Perhaps not. But I do know that we will never get anywhere until we see how scholars still fail to understand Jesus as a Jew and still falsely imagine him in constant conflict with Jewish leaders. I would like to see at least some scholars, besides Schussler Fiorenza, admit that they are recovering racists towards Jews and towards so-called primitive peoples. If that day ever comes, we will be very near utopia on earth.

Sunday, July 04, 2004


Finally, there's a site on the Internet (other than my own) that has a real scholarly interest in Jesus' Jewishness. I've put a link to it in the Links column at right. My friend Sean from England brought it to my attention.

It began in 1987 as a print newsletter and was started by David Bivin and Jeffrey Magnuson. I believe they are part of a group known as the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research (JSSR). They have a book of essays coming out in the fall.

Their particular focus is on recovering the original Hebrew sense of Jesus' sayings. Many of the scholars here appear to be Christian, including David Bivin and Robert Lindsey. In fact, when you go to this site, use their search engine to look for these two names and you will find a number of interesting articles.

In addition to the articles, there is a discussion forum that you can join. There are many topics. One part of the forum is for discussion of their articles and the other is a general discussion. There is also a free monthly electronic newsletter you can sign up for.

I don't know how many hits they get, but judging from the activity on the forum, I would say there are not too many who participate. I think this is probably because the interest on this site in Jesus' Jewishness is so strong that it turns off most of the conservative Christians who find it. That is a shame. Because much of the scholarship is very good. You will learn a lot about Greek and Hebrew and more.

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