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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Truth Out of Balance

When I’m working, I leave my car in a seven-storey public parkade across the street from a hospital. Recently it was thought prudent to increase the number of available parking spaces for disabled drivers, so the necessary repainting was done and the usual signs posted.

That would have been fine, except that the increase in disabled spaces was an order of magnitude greater than the need it was intended to address; ten times the number required even in the busiest hours of the average day. Virtually the entire second floor of the parkade is now empty morning, noon and night. Thirty drivers who would otherwise have paid for space in this busy downtown parking lot are stuck looking for accommodation elsewhere, and the City loses the revenue from their daily custom. On the bright side, the strategy virtue-signals magnificently, so the town hall clerks and administrators are likely unperturbed.

Christian instruction can be a bit like that parkade. We only have so much space in our craniums. A truth stressed out of proportion pushes other truths out of place.

Hierarchies of Truth

Not all truths are equally important. For example, the truth that oxen should not be muzzled when treading out grain is less important than the truth that elders should be cared for and appreciated when engaged in caring for the churches. The truth that salvation comes by grace through faith rather than by intermittent compliance with God’s law is greater still.

The hierarchical structure of truth is immediately evident if we look at the relative consequences of failing to observe any of the above instructions. In the first instance you will probably still feed your ox, just not when he’s working. He may like you less, but you are unlikely to notice unless you carelessly stand within range of a stray hoof. In the second, your elders may feel a little like Moses must have felt at times. Most of them will probably continue doing their spiritual work anyway, but you will not benefit from sharing in it with them. In the third instance ... disaster. Approaching God on the basis of works rather than faith is the difference between heaven and hell.

Apostolic word count is another subtle indicator of the relative importance of certain doctrines. Oxen: 29 words. Valuing church leadership: several paragraphs across several epistles. Law vs. Grace: the better part of two NT books.

Bible truth, as laid out in the scriptures, is beautifully balanced. We are not.

Just a Bit Fixated

Over the past several years of reading it daily, I noticed the translators of the English Standard Version of the Bible have a bit of a fixation with the Greek word adelphoi. A typical footnote reads something like this:
“In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.”
How often does adelphoi get explained? Well, it’s the single most footnoted word in the entire ESV New Testament, and by a long shot. Bear in mind that the ESV is relatively uncluttered with marginal minutiae. Quite a few chapters in the epistles have no footnotes at all. However, the ESV translators believed the footnotes they did place were very important indeed. Its preface says footnotes are:
“... an integral part of the ESV translation, informing the reader of textual variations and difficulties and showing how these have been resolved by the ESV translation team. In addition to this, the footnotes indicate significant alternative readings and occasionally provide an explanation for technical terms or for a difficult reading in the text.”
Get that? Those footnotes are integral, significant and explanatory. Not irrelevant.

Some Illuminating Stats

The numbers that follow are ballparked. I’m mildly interested in what I’m investigating here, not completely off my nut. Trust me, they’re close.

Despite the putative importance of their footnotes, from the beginning of the book of Acts to the end of the book of Revelation (the portion of the Bible concerned with “God’s family, the church”) the ESV has seen fit to annotate a mere 640 verses. Of these, 138 have to do with how we should understand the Greek word adelphoi. That’s almost 22%, not far off a quarter of the entire number.

On that basis, you would think the fact that adelphoi sometimes refers to both men and women is the single most significant assertion in the entire New Testament. It certainly explains why I couldn’t fail to notice the frequency with which the footnote appears.

By way of comparison:
  • a note that the term “Jews” often refers to Jewish religious leaders rather than all ethnic Jews occurs fourteen times, or 2.2% of the total footnotes.
  • a note that the word for “child” is translated “servant” comes up five times.
  • notes translating ancient time measurements into modern ones are used seven times.
  • notes translating distances into English occur three times.
  • a note on the meaning of the word doulos, often translated “slave”, comes up second-most at a mere 37 times (or 5.7% of the total number), though slavery is as controversial a topic as you’ll find in the New Testament. Even odder is that doulos is footnoted only 66% of the time it appears (37/56), while adelphoi is footnoted roughly 95% of the time it could reasonably be taken to include women (138/145 by my count, though making that determination is far from an exact science).
Cut to the Chase Already!

Okay, okay, I’ll cut to the chase. If the number of times a word merits an explanation has anything at all to do with its perceived spiritual importance, then including the sisters in the language of the New Testament was the single most significant translation concern confronted by the ESV team.

But some people are never satisfied.

In a post entitled “Women Are Not Footnotes in God’s Story”, Rachael Starke explains why she’s ditching her ESV despite its translation team’s herculean — nay, unprecedented — efforts to include the fairer sex in the language of scripture even in places it is not entirely clear they are present:
“In the CSB, women are not footnotes in God’s redemptive plan; we’re an integral part of it. Our union with Christ makes us His sisters, and thus sisters to all those, men and women, who are united to Him as well.

That’s why I’ve decided embrace the CSB as the translation I’ll use to study for myself, and for sharing with others, especially with other women. It’s deepened my understanding of the implications of my identity in Christ, not just as a person, but as a woman, and as a sister.

That’s worthy of more than footnoting — it’s worthy of celebration, and worship.”
The Value of Women

Do I have to do the usual handwaving? I do, don’t I.

I hate unnecessary disclaimers, but here goes: Of course God loves women. Of course the redemptive work of Christ has always been for, and on behalf of women, as much as it has been for men. Of course women share in the heavenly calling, and of course Jesus is not ashamed to call Rachael Starke his “sister”.

OF COURSE women are not footnotes in God’s redemptive plan.

But if you can’t get that truth from the plain statements in the epistles, from the presence and importance of women in and to the ministry of Jesus, from the Lord’s rebuke to Simon the Pharisee, and from which sex was closest to the cross and first to the tomb — if you can’t work that truth through in your head and feel it right down to your bones — I doubt mutilating the English text of Holy Scripture is going to help you much.

If rewriting the English translation of the Bible is the only way you can come to know and feel God’s love for women, well, God bless and good luck with that.

But it isn’t, as the passages linked above testify and have testified with utter adequacy (and, more importantly, greater accuracy) for two millennia.

The Value of the Text

Women belong all kinds of wonderful places in the plans and purposes of God and in the life, ministry and heart of the Lord Jesus. Where they do NOT belong is in the text of my English Bible when they’re not explicitly present in the original language.

Why? Because women are insufficiently precious to God? No. Because the actual words of the Lord are precious too. Ask the Psalmist. There’s a vast distance between a marginal note that represents one possible reading of the text and the text itself.

I’ve read that more than 100 leading evangelical scholars and pastors were involved in the translation of the ESV, and you can bet they did their very best. Their efforts to kowtow to the sensibilities of women like Rachael Starke border on excessive. But they were translating Greek words with ambiguities built in, and of the hundreds of references to adelphoi and its variants between Acts and Revelation, they found only 138 they were sufficiently confident about to flag for the reader as certifiably inclusive.

Having now read each and every one, I can tell you they missed a few, they included some they probably shouldn’t, and their standards for inclusion flip-flopped from case to case. How could they not? The precise meaning of the word is ambiguous, and the only clue they had to work with was context. Sometimes there just wasn’t enough context there to make a determination, so they took a guess. An educated guess, sure, but a guess all the same.

At least they only footnoted their guesses.

Taking a Guess

The CSB is guessing too.

So when they translate 2 Peter 1:10 as “Therefore, brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election,” I suspect they have correctly sussed out Peter’s intention. He is addressing fellow believers in a way that Paul’s doctrinal writings have already established is thoroughly appropriate.

Good guess, guys, even if your translation is less literal than it might be.

But when the CSB translates Acts 2:29 as “Brothers and sisters, I can confidently speak to you about the patriarch David: He is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day,” I suspect their “translation team” is rewriting history. At Pentecost, Peter is not addressing the crowd at a Martin Luther King memorial, but rather an impromptu gathering of patriarchal Jews in a historical context in which Luke still keeps track of the converts by counting the men [an─ôr]. One thing Peter’s not likely to have done in addressing such a crowd is to have put unnecessary barriers in the way of their salvation, especially barriers related to a subject which the newborn Church had yet to work through.

Bad guess, guys. I think you’re flat-out wrong.

I’m all for Rachael Starke finding women in her Bible when she reads it, but swapping out competent, non-ideological translation for feelz is not my idea of a good trade.

Bible truth, as laid out in the scriptures, is beautifully balanced. We are not. And a truth emphasized disproportionately to its relative value may not be a lie exactly, but it certainly pushes other truths out of the way and makes for a skewed view of the relative importance of what is being taught.

This is that.

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