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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Reading Too Much Into It


While observing that the vocabulary, syntax and idiomatic language of holy writ retain the characteristics of individual human authorship, I am confident each of these things was in every case perfectly superintended by the Holy Spirit of God. Thus Paul does not write exactly like James, who in turn does not write like David or Moses. Yet all not only spoke the word of God, they spoke the very words of God.

Let’s start with that. Even if I end up somewhere not everyone may like.

Jots and Tittles

The Lord Jesus himself demonstrated in the gospels more than once that it is not just the overall message being communicated, but the individual units of that message that are important. In fact, not just words, but the tenses of those words and even the letters of those words and all that goes with them in the various languages of scripture are worthy of our attention.

But I also believe it is possible to read way, WAY more into a single Greek or Hebrew word than God ever intended. We do it all the time.

What We Know and What We Don’t

This is especially common today, even with all our study aids and expertise, perhaps because we are almost two millennia removed from everyday Koine Greek usage and even more from the Hebrew and Aramaic.

We can count the number of times a word was used in the Bible. We can pull out a Greek dictionary and see what the best linguists of our day think it means. We can compare scripture with scripture at the individual word level. All this puts us in a very privileged position, and we have much for which we should be grateful. But in the end, Greek and ancient Hebrew are not our languages. We did not live when they were spoken, and we do not have a precise feel for how certain words were used.

While we may read a Greek paragraph and through good translation and careful examination of context come to an accurate conclusion about what it means — one absolutely sufficient for life and godliness — we are wise to exercise caution in drawing conclusions about individual words that are just a little too contrived and ultimately inattentive to the way the writers of scripture actually use them.

We want (and rightly so) to apply the Bible to our own lives. But this may at times predispose us to see more than is actually there.

Servanthood and Immediacy

Let me give you a very common example. Mark’s use of eutheōs, translated “straightway” or “immediately”, is frequently cited as evidence of the Lord’s servant character and used as an example to us of how we ought to behave.

Now, the conclusion itself is not wrong. The Lord was indeed the servant of God, and Mark’s gospel does dwell on this aspect of his character. It is a good lesson to learn. Unfortunately, Mark’s use of eutheōs is not really a legitimate way to get there.

That doesn’t stop A.W. Pink:
There was no tardiness about Christ’s service, but ‘straight away’ He was ever about His ‘Father’s business.’ There was no delay, but ‘immediately’ He performed the work given Him to do. This word tells of the promptitude of His service and the urgency of His mission. There was no holding back, no reluctance, no slackness, but a blessed ‘immediateness’ about all His work. We should all learn from this perfect example which He has left us.”
The bold text in these examples is me, not Pink. But you get the point. He believes eutheōs is always best translated “immediately” and that we can draw important conclusions about the Lord’s promptness and urgency of service from it.

Sweeping Conclusions from Mere Suggestion

Dr. H. T. Spence takes this idea further, drawing whimsical and largely baseless conclusions about an entire historical people group from Mark’s repeated use of a single Greek word:
“Mark wrote his Gospel to the Romans, a busy people, always in a hurry, working for the cause of the Empire … The characteristic word of Mark in the Greek language is ‘euthus,’ translated ‘anon,’ ‘forthwith,’ ‘immediately,’ and ‘straightway’ … All of these verses show the busy activity of the book.”
As has been well documented, Mark does indeed make use of eutheōs and its relatives as many as 43 times. But when this usage is noted from the pulpit, what is almost always overlooked is that the Lord is not uniquely the subject; Mark uses eutheōs of all sorts of people in all manner of situations. By my count his references to the actions of others outnumber his references to the Lord 27-16.

In Mark, everybody does stuff “immediately”. When called, the disciples “immediately” forsook their nets. Those who knew Simon’s mother-in-law “immediately” told the Lord Jesus she was sick. In the Lord’s parable, Satan comes “immediately” to take away the word that has been sown.

We do not draw sweeping conclusions about Satan’s character or that of the disciples from these references, do we? No, nor should we.

The Meaning of eutheōs

It is certainly apparent Mark likes the word, and that he probably used it regularly in conversation. The word eutheōs comes from euthys, which means “straight”, as in “Make his paths straight”, which may be understood to mean “Remove anything that might impede or delay passage”. The word eutheōs CAN legitimately be translated “immediately” or “urgently”, but it does not mean this in every case. Strong’s supplies alternate meanings for eutheōs such as “forthwith” and “soon” that would be a better fit than “immediately” or “straightway” in many instances.

In fact, I suspect we are better to understand eutheōs as meaning “without interruption”, or “without intervening events” than as meaning “speedily” or “with urgency”. Whether Mark is talking about the Lord’s actions or the actions of his Jewish enemies, he seems to be simply telling us that one thing followed after another thing without digression. He is describing a sequence of events; no more, no less. Haste is not the primary issue.

Moreover, the word is by no means unique to Mark. Luke uses it seventeen times, Matthew fifteen times, and John four. Are we going to make Matthew the “other gospel of immediacy”?

An Act of Moral Urgency

But the award for overanalyzing what may be no more than a verbal tic must surely go to Marie Noonan Sabin, who comments on Mark’s use of eutheōs at some length.

She starts with this dubious assertion:
“In the first part of his Gospel (chs. 1-8), Mark uses the word to signal an act of moral urgency.”
Not really. Sometimes this is true, but Mark 2:2, 3:6, 4:29, 5:2, 6:25 and 6:45 have nothing whatsoever to do with moral urgency, and a number of other instances in the first eight chapters of the gospel are questionable at best. But having imposed significance on the word eutheōs that is not actually there, poor Marie is compelled to jump through hoops explaining why the way Mark uses the word appears to change later in his gospel:
“In the passion narrative of the Gospel, Mark uses the word sparsely and ironically. The high priest calls the council to condemn Jesus ‘straightway’ (15:1). If one recalls Mark’s earlier use of the word, the irony here seems heavy. At the same time, by using it Mark is signaling a larger irony by which, in spite of all appearances, God’s plan is going straight.”
I will leave the reader to assess whether this makes any sense at all, but to my mind, attempts to see a larger irony in the passion narrative derived solely from the word “immediately” sound a whole lot like my Grade 10 English teacher’s reveries about what S.E. Hinton was trying to communicate through the use of imagery in The Outsiders.

Basically, speculative hogwash. It fills pages, sure, but adds nothing real and substantial to our knowledge base.

The Perfect Servant

Let’s not be too hard on Sabin. She is only doing what dozens, perhaps hundreds of preachers have done before her. But if we’re going to talk about the servant character of the Lord Jesus Christ — an indisputable feature of both Old and New Testaments — I prefer we demonstrate it unequivocally, something Isaiah does impeccably:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.”
God does not leave us in any doubt that his Son was his perfect servant and that at every time and in every way he responded faultlessly to the direction of his Father’s will.

But to demonstrate such truths, we have no need to resort to concordances, definitions and conjectures about the reason ancient Greek words were used. Any “truth” perched on such a speculative foundation is probably ... well ... not true.

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