Friday, July 8, 2011

RKIA's Guide to Reading the Bible... part 6b

“TRADITION! (Cue the sound of klezmer music, as in Fiddler on the Roof ) TRADITION!”

(The following will be even more incomprehensible than usual if you have not read last week's action packed installment.)

There seem to be four possible meanings for the word epiousion: 1) necessary for existence 2) daily requirement 3) for the next day 4) deriving from epienai: for the future, for the coming existence. In St. Jerome's translation in 405 A.D. we read (Mat 6:11): “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread" which means “over-being," but in the Our Father the Latin phrase “panem quotidianum” means daily bread. It was understood that way from the earliest times. In the very ancient Aramaic version, the Syriac "Peshitta" the phrase is translated "give us the bread of which we have need today." So even if the grocery list was lost or badly translated, the Greek phrase “ton arton ton epiousion” means "bread necessary for the day." The only definitive way we have of knowing that epiousion means “daily” is, you guessed it! TRADITION! I could come along with a theory that epiousion really means “whole wheat” and if you are in the sola scriptura crowd, you have no way of refuting me unless of course you refer to TRADITION!

People regularly ask me for the most accurate translation of the Bible. There is no such thing. I tell them that they should learn Greek. It’s easy. Every three-year-old in ancient Athens could speak it. (Actually I learned beginning ancient Greek by teaching it for 25 years at a university, but I’m a little slow.) Even if you learn ancient Greek, you’ve still got a problem. The world has changed. You can never put yourself back into the context of those times.

For instance, the Scriptures talk about the denarius. It was one day’s wage for an average worker at the time of Christ. That should make it a simple equivalent to about, say $70 to $90 bucks. If a person is making around the minimum wage these days, he can probably go to a big box store and buy a couple shirts. At the time of Christ, a man may have owned only a few shirts in his whole life. Cloth was not made on machines by slave labor as in our times. It was made inch by inch on homemade looms and was incredibly expensive. The Bible talks about wheat and barley and oil and water, all of which were in short supply. There was no middle class to speak of. It was a different world. Words change meaning in ways deeper than we can fathom.

Let’s take love, for instance. It’s a fairly important word in the Bible. Ancient Romans believed what we call love was immoral. Yes, you heard me, immoral! They were stoics and love made you vulnerable to the control of another, hence it was immoral. Much of what we call love today is, even by our own standards, immoral. The Bible tells us that “God is Love” and “Love one another” “Love endures forever.” It would seem to be very important to understand what love is.

I remember back in the groovy sixties, which I can vaguely remember, there was a new religious group on campus at Watsamata U. Called the “Children of God.” They were very popular. They stressed the texts of Scripture that taught “God is Love.” Their founder, David Berg, who called himself Moses David, was quite fond of discipling charming under-grads of the non-male gender. He taught the “Law of Love.” If a person's actions were not intentionally hurtful to others those actions were allowed by the Bible. So, if it was real, unselfish love, it was okay. They practiced what they called “polyamory” which means lots of partners. Same gender “intimate” relationships between women were allowed because they were not specifically forbidden by the Bible, but similar male relationships, clearly prohibited by the Bible, were sinful. It seems that the Rev. Berg had some interesting issues.

You may now pick your jaw up off the floor. I can hear you saying, “How ridiculous! That’s absurd. Everybody knows that the Bible doesn’t say that!” Why is Rev. Berg wrong? Who’s to say that he is misinterpreting the word “love” or “agape”? His interpretation is every bit as good as mine. He can define the word “love,” that central word of the New Testament, as well as I can, as well as you can or as well as Billy Graham can. Who’s to say? The exact same thing happened during the reformation.

"In 1534, the Melchiorites, a group of Anabaptists, captured the German city of Münster. They immediately burned all books except the Bible, banned the use of money and seized the property of non-believers. They killed Protestants and Catholics and practiced polygamy and sexual excess. Their leader, John of Leyden, had sixteen wives. As to be expected, they proclaimed the Day of Judgment was close at hand.” (Quoted from ‘Early Modern History, Lecture 4: The Impact of Luther and the Radical Reformation’) And why not? Luther had declared every man his own pope, and so it remains today.

If you are Catholic, your answer to these questions is very easy. We have a consistent history of teaching which is carefully guarded by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. As our Lord Jesus intended and still intends, the Pope is the guardian of meaning. The words may change, but the meaning is unchanging and the teaching authority that Christ gave Peter tells us what the meaning is and has always been.

People are fond of saying “just the Bible. I only want to believe what the Bible says! No new doctrines!!!” If you adhere to the precise words of Scripture as it was written, you lose meaning as the meaning of words shift. In the Scriptures “agape” meant a certain type of love. Christians used the word to mean sacrificial love. In modern Greek, agape can mean a lot of things. A young Hellenic swain might use the word in a way that the apostle never intended, “S’agapo” can mean “I love you.” If you assume that word meanings remain the same, you are going to have problems.

“I want to know what the word meant at the time of Christ!” Scholars argue endlessly about the topic, but the soft spoken Bavarian in Rome, who is actually a very accomplished scholar, has the right and the duty to tell us what it means. This is what it always meant. This is what it will always mean, though the words may change. I have known people who search for scholars and pastors who will let them marry their eighth wife because that scholar or pastor has found a new meaning for an ancient word. You can choose the scholar or the preacher or the snake oil salesman who agrees with you. I will take the quiet, white-haired Bavarian who sits on the throne of Peter.

Remember, Jesus said “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” Jn 6:12 and that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” Jn 21:25 These words and deeds were entrusted to St. Peter and his successors, and despite their many human weaknesses and even sins, they have passed down the faith unchanged from the very first century of Christianity.

So, Principle #7:


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