Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (4)

Sometimes Christians make arguments which are broadly correct, but wrong in the specifics. They reach the right conclusions, but do it by wrong reasoning. More often than not, they do this by inadvertently making false claims about the meaning of Greek or Hebrew words, usually for lack of careful research.

Now, it may be argued that perhaps this sort of error is not a big deal, since the listener gets to the correct place in the end regardless of the road used to get him there. Unfortunately, one of two things occurs: (1) the listener cannot navigate to his interpretive destination again without his misguided mentor, or (2) he can, and in doing so he too becomes a proponent of errors in method, if not actual errors in doctrine.

Either outcome is undesirable.

Here are three more terms in our Bibles which translate Greek words whose meanings are not well understood.

6.  “Immediately”

Drawing Sweeping Conclusions from Minimal Evidence

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 indeed present this aspect of his character. It is a good lesson to learn. Unfortunately, micro-analyzing the way Mark uses eutheōs is not really a legitimate way to get there.

As has been well documented, Mark makes 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 liked 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 name Luke the “other gospel of immediacy”?

My own conviction is that for Mark, eutheōs is not much more than an authorial tic, one that reminds us that though the Holy Spirit is in truth the governing intelligence behind the entire word of God, he used real human beings to do it, complete with all their unique quirks and peculiarities, and did not overwhelm their individual personalities in making use of their skills.

That’s not the worst lesson in the world either.

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7.  “Forever”

Eons and Ages

Lorraine Day, M.D. is a universalist. Among others of her ilk, she points out that the Greek and Hebrew words translated “forever”, “eternal”, “everlasting” and so on do not always mean what we English speakers think they mean. That is to say, “forever” does not always mean effectively “for infinity”, but frequently for some shorter, measurable period. She is particularly concerned with English translations of the much-misunderstood Greek aiōnios. Day insists aiōnios should not be uniformly translated “forever”, but rather “up until the end of a particular period of time, or age”. (The word aiōnios comes from aiōn, meaning an unbroken age or period of time, in English an “eon”.)

So Day divides human history into five “eons” of varying lengths, with eternity before and after.

The End of the Eon

Now, there’s lots wrong with Day’s conclusions. Her theological package is a mess, and orthodox Christians rightly dismiss it. But we are not helped by throwing out her language study, which in itself is quite solid. She’s not wrong about the words, and the argument of those of us who believe in genuinely eternal punishment and reward is not strengthened by dismissing her point. When Jesus says, “The harvest is the end of the aiōn”, the word “eternity” does not work as a translation. The Lord clearly has in view a finite period of time. He means the harvest is at the end of this particular period in God’s dealings with mankind. Again, when he speaks of the shrewdness of the “sons of this aiōn”, in contrast to the “sons of light”, it is evident he means “sons of this world”, or “age”.

So, sometimes “forever” doesn’t mean forever. Some English translations are better at dealing with this issue, others less so.

Genuinely Eternal Eons

Still, even Day has to concede that sometimes “forever” DOES mean for infinity; in fact, most of the time this is the case. When scripture speaks of the “eternal [aiōnios] God”, for instance, it is clear he is not the God only of a particular age or ages. When the ruler asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit aiōnios life?” it is evident he is not merely concerned with milking an extra millennium out of his existence, but rather speaking of eternity in the sense with which Christians are familiar.

Once again we find ourselves looking at a word with a meaning that is context-dependent rather than rigidly definable on the basis of etymology. Which is fine; it happens all the time. We know genuinely eternal life is a thing not because the Greek word for “eternal” has a single, unvarying dictionary definition, but because of how the Lord and the apostles use it.

Contrasts and Comparables

For one thing, we know because of the contrasts the Lord uses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Here “eternal” life is contrasted with “perishing”, which cannot mean anything other than spiritual death, since human beings have continued to die in the physical sense ever since Jesus said it — not least the Lord himself, exactly as he prophesied many times to his disciples.

We also know genuinely eternal punishment is a thing because the apostles speak of “eternal” life and “eternal” punishment in the very same contexts. Jude, for instance, refers to aiōnios fire in v7 and aiōnios life in v21. What bizarre principle of interpretation might permit us to understand the first one to mean “graciously temporary” and the second “genuinely eternal”? There are many other instances like this.

In short, “forever” in your English Bible may not always mean “for infinity”. One has to examine the context to see whether what is being referred to is eternity or a more limited period. It’s no big deal and it doesn’t change anything about the Christian faith, let alone usher in universalism.

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8.  “Fulfilled”

That It Might Be Fulfilled ...

I know what atheists think “fulfilled” means. They think it ought to mean that a prophet said something specific, unambiguous and even highly unlikely, and that the event prophesied later unfolded with mathematical exactitude. Christians often use the word the same way, so perhaps we are very slightly responsible for their befuddlement. But when we do this, we are imposing a modern mindset on an ancient text.

Don’t get me wrong, once in a while this very specific sort of fulfillment really does take place. For instance, Matthew 4:14 quotes Isaiah 9, a passage that is unarguably messianic. Isaiah tells us of a child to be called “Wonderful Counselor” and “Mighty God” who will make the land beyond the Jordan glorious. So Matthew points out that Jesus lived and ministered in that very region, working miracle after miracle to testify to the truth of his words. Pretty straightforward. Might be nice if they were all like that.

But they’re not, and that’s not the fault of Matthew. He’s not writing his gospel for modern atheists and rationalists looking to pick at every potential nit, but for fellow Jews steeped in the Old Testament eagerly waiting for a man sent from God whose earthly experience would be consistent with the words of the prophets. He’s not putting together a scientific argument for the hardened skeptic; he’s among fellow seekers of truth saying something more like “Have a look at this similarity. Isn’t it curious? What are the chances of two things of the same type occurring naturally?”

Slim Chances

The chances are pretty slim, even when Matthew appears (and only appears, I would stress) to play fast and loose with the words of the prophets. For instance, Hosea says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It’s not impossible the prophet was referring to the nation in the first line and Messiah in the second, but that’s not how we’d naturally read it. Matthew recounts how Joseph took Mary and her child to Egypt after being warned by an angel of King Herod’s murderous intentions, and he finishes by saying, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ”

Let’s leave aside what Hosea intended, because as Peter tells us, the prophets, carried along by the Spirit of Christ, often weren’t 100% sure how their own words applied. It seems to me Matthew is simply saying, “Look at the parallel here. God calls both his ‘sons’ out of Egypt. There’s a pattern. Isn’t that interesting?”

Then Was Fulfilled What Was Spoken

Again, Jeremiah says this about the few Israelites left in their land when the Assyrians took their sons and daughters captive:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’ ”
But Matthew appropriates these words to describe the impact of Herod’s massacre of male children in Bethlehem just after Jesus was born, and says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.”

Literalism and Beyond

Bear in mind that Matthew’s not being dishonest here. His immediate audience was Jewish. That matters. Historically, Jews have interpreted their scripture on five different levels, which you can read about here if you’re interested. The first or most literal level is called pshat, and is the closest we can come to our Western mode of interpretation. Any use we make of scripture beyond the literal meaning is usually referred to as “application” rather than interpretation.

But Jews view these other levels of exegesis as perfectly valid, and that makes them open to readings of the text we would not generally consider, provided they are acceptable to the rabbis. Who’s right? Well, let me just suggest that the answer to that may not be quite so cut and dried as we might think.

Anyway, my point is this: Matthew wrote for people who knew exactly which passages he was quoting from and had contemplated their original meaning (as they understand “meaning”) in great detail. If there was something inappropriate, illegitimate or even slightly unusual about the way he was repurposing the words of Jeremiah, his initial readers would surely have squawked up a storm and his gospel would have been a complete failure.

Instead, two thousand years later it’s still convincing men and women that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah, despite persistent, sometimes near-pathological opposition.

Using Prophecy Like a First Century Jew

So ... IF we are going to use fulfilled prophecy in preaching the gospel, we need to start by using words like “fulfilled” the way a first century Jew did, not least because no other usage is really correct. Further, the sort of people most likely to be convinced by such arguments today will probably be the same sort who were convinced by them in the first century: religious people very familiar with the Old Testament.

For other audiences, there is surely an effective case for faith in Christ to be made from the word of God that will meet each need without resorting to semantic tricks or appearing to misuse scripture.

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If you are interested in a more in-depth dissection of any of these three words, you can find them here, here and here.

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