literary license, or forgot to read the whole thing?

Monday, 06-Jan-2014 marked the beginning of my first (official) online course that I’m teaching for Johnson University. The course is a 7-week intensive study of 1 Corinthians for the MA in Intercultural Studies program. To be fair, the course is really a 5-week intensive on 1 Corinthians, seeing that week 1 deals with introductory matters and week 7 is missions orientated–in view of what we learn from 1 Corinthians, of course.

While preparing for/writing the course, I had the opportunity to revisit the text in a rather detailed manner–something that I have not done since the middle of October. (I took a break from 1 Corinthians because I needed to, seeing that I spent nearly 5 years exegeting the thing). In this revisiting, I was also able to look at a few things more closely–things that I could only consider briefly when doing my PhD. One of these bits was the Thanksgiving portion of the letter (i.e. 1 Cor 1.4-9), which contains a number of salient details relevant to what Paul argues in the letter.

In my preparations for this course, I wanted to interact with English translation and consider how they deal with certain portions of the text. When I did this with the Thanksgiving section, something struck me as rather surprising. The specific passage in mind is 1 Cor 1.4-5, which I translate as: “I always give thanks to my God concerning you for the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus, since in all things you were made rich in him [Jesus]–in all speech and all knowledge” (εὐχαριτω τω θεω μου παντοτε περι ὑμων ἐπι τη χαριτι του θεου τη δοθειση ὑμιν ἐν Χριστω ͗Ιησου, ὁτι ἐν παντι ἐπλουτισθητε ἐν αὐτω, ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει).

By and large, the majority of English translation agree on the big ticket items in this passage: God is always the recipient of Paul’s thanksgiving, the Corinthians are always the indirect object, God’s grace is always the “thing” given to the Corinthians, Christ Jesus is always the agent through whom God’s grace comes, the Corinthians are always rich in/because of Christ, and there is always something about “speech” and “knowledge.” Admittedly, some will add a flourish here and there, ostensibly to make the text “come alive” to its readers, and these flourishes range between “Hey, that’s quite good” (e.g. “Every time I think of you–and I think of you often!–I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus” [MSG]) and “Okay . . . I think I see what you’re doing” (e.g. “I never stop thanking my God for being kind enough to give you Christ Jesus” [CEV]).

Moreover, especially when comparing translations on the final clause (i.e. “in all speech and all knowledge”), there are a few that offer what look to be explanatory interpretations of what (they think) Paul is saying. For example, while the Greek simply says, “in all speech and all knowledge”, others will suggest further details:

  • Amplified Bible: “in full power and readiness of speech (to speak your faith) and complete knowledge and illumination (to give you full insight into its meaning)”
  • Complete Jewish Bible: “particularly in power of speech and depth of knowledge”
  • Darby’s Translation: “in all word (of doctrine), and all knowledge”
  • Living Bible: “He has helped you speak out for him and has given you a fill understanding of truth”
  • New Living Translation: “with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge”[1]

All of these kinds of flourishes and explanatory interpretations could be seen as exercising artistic or literary license, which is sometimes needed when doing translation. However, in one translation it appears as though the excitement of receiving their literary license caused the translators to forget everything else. The translation in question?  The New International Reader’s Version (or NIrV)–published by the same people who did the NIV (and tried to corner the market with multiple types of it) and the late TNIV.[2] The over-exuberant reading? Here you go (with reference to the Greek for comparison):

  • Greek: ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει (“in all speech and all knowledge”)
  • NIrV: “All your teaching of the truth is better.  Your understand of it is more complete”

Excuse me?! How the . . . Have you read 1 Corinthians!? Did you happen to pick up a commentary on 1 Corinthians or even a scholarly article and, I don’t know, see what scholars have to say?! “Better” and “more complete” than what–a rock? Two minutes more reading of the letter will demonstrate that the Corinthians’ teaching and understanding are precisely what Paul addresses. And it’s clear that he ain’t happy with either (or both). “All your teaching of the truth is better. Your understanding of it is more complete.” Give me a break. You should have your license revoked, or at least suspended.

[1] I happen to like this one, mainly because I think it brings out Paul’s sarcasm, which obviously appeals to mine.
[2] Although, you can still access this version online.

parroting bad theories

Per my usual morning routine, and because I am not able to take classes anymore, I was listening to a lecture by a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, who will remain anonymous (to protect the guilty). The course, for the past 7 seven lectures has been rather good, and I anticipate its continued goodness for the remaining 17. We’ll see how it goes.

This morning’s lecture dealt with the twin topics of revelation (not the book of) and eschatology–two topics that often grab my attention. To begin the lecture, the professor (we’ll call him, “Bob”) recapped some of the previous discussions in order to show their relevance for the current one. In the midst recapping, “Bob” raised the point about names having “significant, historical, redemptive connotations”, and that sometimes names are purposefully changed by God to reflect this reality. Moreover, the name-change signals something about the person, namely: that person is now going to be used by God in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.

In an effort to illustrate (or even prove) his point, “Bob” listed off some key biblical figures where he sees this purposeful name-changing thing taking place–e.g. Abram –> Abraham.¹ And then it happened. I feared it would the moment he started this line of argument, and he proved my fears correct. He mentioned the apostle Paul as an example! I nearly came out of my skin, which would be a bit gross. And messy to clean up. I have heard and read this (bad) theory many times,² and each time it provokes the same response–i.e. the coming of the skin thing. I say it’s a bad theory because it is simply not true, let alone consistent with the biblical text. And “Bob”, being a systematic theologian, should know this–i.e. he should know better.

The only passage in the NT that refers to Paul as having another name is Acts 13.9. It is true that up to this point, he has been called, “Saul” and after this point he is referred to as “Paul” (excepting Acts 22.7 and 26.14). I’ll grant that, but only that. Nothing in the text suggests either 1) that the name was changed from Saul to Paul as a result of a direct encounter with God or with some divine, redemptive-historical assignment,³ or 2) that “Paul” was not already a name by which he was known. In fact, the text simply reads: “But Saul–who [is] also Paul–being filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Σαυλος δε ὁ και Παυλος πλησθεις πνευματος ἁγιου). Nothing about a name-change. Only that he had another name.

If such a name-change took place, as “Bob” and other parrot, and if such a changing is ordinarily linked with some divine encounter and/or redemptive-historical commissioning, then we would expect to see the Saul-Paul shift taking place after Acts 9.19 and not nearly 4 chapters later. But we don’t. And we don’t see it because it ain’t there, and it ain’t there because “Paul” was always one of his names, given to him at birth. Some 30 years prior.

¹ This theory begins to fall apart when we consider the names of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even James (the brother of Jesus). All of these men retained their (original) names despite encountering God and/or being given specific divine commissions.
² Augustine seems to one of the earliest to suggest it (see Sermons, 225). After that, it can be found in the works of scholars, pastors, church-goers, and even skeptics–e.g. J. Stow, Reflections on the Epistles of St Paul (1847), 318; C.J. den Heyer, Paul (2000), 27; M. Dimont, Jews, God, and History (2004), 141; B. Organ, Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? (2004), 48; A. Scheil, The Footsteps of Israel (2004), 224; J. Carter, Faith (2008), 300; D. Ridges, Your Study of the New Testament (2008), 26.
³ Adolf Jülicher already made this point–see Introduction (1904), 34.

be careful in polemics . . .

because (apparently) it might cause forgetfulness, misrepresentation or an uncontrollable urge to speak untruths. One example comes from the always feisty Thomas Ice, an ardent mouthpiece for (Classical) Dispensationalism.

The topic of discussion is the (rather untenable) notion of a secret pre-tribulation rapture of the saints as the first stage of Christ’s second coming–i.e. what Classical Dispensationalists (mis)label the parousia.[1] Ice’s beef is not necessarily with the teaching itself but with the qualifying term “secret” being attached to it.[2] Expressing his angst with those who (wrongly–in his view) describe the pre-tribulation as “secret”, Ice says the following:

Sorry, but this is another mistake, another myth. In all my reading of pretribulationism and discussion with pretribulationists, I have never, that I can recall, heard a pre-trib rapturist use the nomenclature of “secret” to describe our view. I have only heard the phrase “secret” rapture as a pejorative term used exclusively by anti-pretribulationists. Why. Apparently they enjoy fighting a straw man.

T. Ice, “Rapture Myths” (accessed, 25-Dec-12);
cf. also the same article, yet posted here.[3]

Ice then pins the blame for this “myth” on Dave MacPherson, a staunch critic of both Ice and (Classical) Dispensationalism, and asserts that MacPherson misrepresented the truth in order to fuel his criticisms. However, it is in voicing his animosity against using “secret” and his railing against MacPherson that Ice slides into trouble in a number of ways.

First, it is simply not the case that MacPherson (or anyone else) created the description for (Classical) Dispensationalism’s understanding of the (supposed) first-stage in order to mock it. Dispensationalists long before and after MacPherson’s book (The Rapture Plot [1994]) regularly employed the term. For example:

  • Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth (1918), 13-14
  • Michael Baxter, Forty Prophetic Wonders (1918), 153
  • Hal Lindsey, Late Great Planet Earth (1970), 142-43
  • Robert Gundry, Church and the Tribulation (1974), 104
  • Warren Wiersbe, Be Ready (1984), 19, 144
  • Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible (2004), note on 1Thess 4.13
  • Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (2005), 4:623
  • cf. also Charles Feinberg, Millennialism: Two Major Views (1985), 287

This raises the second problem: not one of the sources just listed uses the term “secret” in a negative way–contrary to what Ice boldly claims. In fact, not once in these works is “secret” used in any way other than an axiomatic description for the (so-called) pretribulation rapture. Thus, in this case, it would seem that it is Ice who has created the straw man argument, not the so-called anti-pretribulationists (e.g. MacPherson, Ken Gentry).

Third, Ice’s adamant assertion that in all his reading he has not encountered the term “secret” used for the pretribulation view of the rapture is untenable. (Admittedly, he supplies his own escape-hatch with the qualifier: “that I can recall”). With someone as entrenched in Dispensationalism as Ice is, one would think that he’s read the likes of Larkin, Lindsey, Feinberg; and with LaHaye being his colleague at the “Pre-Trib Research Center”, it would safe to assume that Ice has read LaHaye’s stuff.

Even if we can’t assume that, let’s go on what we can know. In his 1990 article, “Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulation Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret MacDonald,” Ice quotes directly from John Walvoord’s book, The Blessed Hope and Tribulation (1979). I mention this because Ice’s quotation ends on the same page where Walvoord mentions the secret rapture (i.e. p. 43). And since Ice later quotes from p. 44 of Walvoord’s book, we can be reasonably sure he noticed the reference to a “secret” rapture–that is unless Ice is reading selectively.

This is not just a one-off. In the same 1990 article, Ice refers to two other works that make explicit mention of a “secret rapture” (Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming  [1984], 21; Harold Rowdon, The Origins of the Brethren 1825-1850 [1967], 231-32), and in both cases the tone is no where close to being pejorative. I have not had the opportunity to check other Ice articles to see if a similar phenomenon occurs. But on the basis of this 1990 article alone, I’m having a hard time believing Ice when he says he’s never heard or read pre-trib rapturists use the term “secret” to describe the event in question.

Now, Ice might play his “I don’t recall” card on these occasions, and if we’re in a decent mood we might let it slide. Maybe. But there is one final problem for Ice when he blasts “anti-pretribulationists” for misrepresenting his view, and it is a problem that his trusty trump card cannot settle. In 2001, a book misleadingly called, Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Bible Prophecy & Its Fulfillment,[4] asserts the following (p.112):

When examining Scripture, the honest seeker after truth must face the fact that there are 15 differences between the two phases of Christ’s coming that cannot reconciled. This alone makes it impossible for them to be the same event. One is a secret coming, the other is public for all to see. One will cause participants to rejoice, and the other will cause people to mourn. [emphasis added]

Notice that the statement is not pejorative, misrepresenting or even anti-pretribulationist. It specifically refers to a “secret coming” [i.e. rapture] of Christ as nearly axiomatic of “biblical” prophecy, and something that is a positive find for “the honest seeker after truth.” The authors of this book? Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice.

It would seem that in his haste to ridicule those who disagree with him, Ice has wrongly accused his opponents of crimes they did not commit; he has not accurately represented what other Dispensationalists are saying; and he has apparently forgotten his own contribution to the problem he seeks to eradicate. But it is often the case that when anger sets in, the mouth opens and the eyes shut.

[1] For now I will side-step the discussion on how Classical Dispensationalists argue for a two-stage return of Christ and how the term “parousia” (supposedly) refers to the first stage.
[2] In some ways, Ice’s argument resembles John Walvoord’s attempt to avoid the term “secret” and yet accept the idea (cf. Church in Prophecy [1964], 83, 136-37).
[3] I have taken screenshots of both sites, just in case Ice wants to erase alter retract his original statement.
[4] The sub-title should read, “A Visual Guide to Dispensational Prophecy & Its Fulfillment”.

hermeneutical question

This is well outside my norm, but I’m up for a little controversy today. Here you go (it’s a two-parter):

Is it possible to reconcile the command in 1 Cor 7.5 with the exhortation in 1 Thess 5.17?  If so, how would you do it?

The floor is open to serious, whimsical and even sarcastic responses.

I know it’s a very thin line, but he crossed it

One of the effects of constantly interacting with other people’s work, is that you gain a sense for where a line of argument is about to go once it starts. Usually this happens because of two related reasons: 1) familiarity in a particular field of study gives you an understanding of the “consensus” views/arguments on a given subject, and 2) when certain names, terms or watch-words are dropped into the discussion, you simply know how such things are ordinarily used. Thus, the second is the result of the first. I am certainly not as gifted in this regard as many others I know (my supervisors, for example), and I candidly admit that I am occasionally wrong–a consequence of not being as gifted, I guess. However, in some respects I think I am getting better. Slowly.

This morning I listened to the first lecture of a course on hermeneutics given by a professor whom we will call, “Bob.” I was delighted to hear Bob’s decision to begin with the letters of Paul, since, technically speaking, they were the first works of the NT to be written.* My delight rests in the acknowledgement that, if we want to study the NT historically then Paul’s letters are first on the agenda. (However, if want to study the NT theologically then the present, canonical order is the best. Another discussion for another time). Sadly, though, my delight in Bob’s approach began to wane for two reasons.

First, Bob started with the letter to the Romans. I am not suggesting that Romans is a bad letter; I happen to like Romans very much. What bothered me was the apparent inconsistency in Bob’s overall approach. Step 1: when studying the NT, start with Paul’s letters. No problem; they are historically first, so that would make sense. Step 2: when studying Paul’s letters, start with the one to the Romans. Quoi?! Why use a historical criterion to determine which texts to begin with and then chuck that criterion once the determination is made? To quote from a great movie: “That don’t make no sense!” However, and despite this, I knew why Bob wanted to start with Romans.

Second, Bob launched in a series of questions on specific topics, all of which have become rather familiar to me. Thus, I knew where he was about to go and why. The line of argument ran something like this: Paul wrote a bunch of letters; literacy rates in the ancient world were exceptionally low (it was at this point I though/knew: “Oh crap, he’s about to rope in the rhetorical stuff”); since literacy rates were low, and since Paul wrote letters, the natural conclusion is that they were meant to be heard; since Paul’s letters were meant to be heard, they function more like speeches (“…here it comes…”); ergo, we can/should study Paul’s letters as comparable–if not synonymous with–ancient rhetorical speeches (“ding, ding, ding!”).

However, in laying out this line of argument Bob said something that completely surprised me. He said: “So some people use a wonderful ancient discipline called, ‘Rhetorical Criticism’ to see how in these letters they are put together rhetorically–that is, in terms of putting together an argument” (emphasis added). I had to back up the recording and hear it again just to make sure I heard it right the first time. I did. Bob called “Rhetorical Criticism” an “ancient discipline.” Why, Bob why?

While studies/training in the art of rhetoric are quite ancient, Rhetorical Criticism is not. In fact, Rhetorical Criticism, as a discipline, is fairly recent–specifically, post 1969 (i.e. post-James Muilenburg’s SBL speech).**  To come at this from another direction: the ancients used theories to educate people (before the fact) in how to deliver public speeches that would be persuasive; modern scholars use models of interpretation to study the historical circumstances of those speeches and their persuasiveness (after the fact). The one is not the other; the two are quite distinct and should not be confused.

* Caveat: I allow for the possibility that the epistle from James (if written by Jesus’ brother) predates the writings of Paul by one to two years. The basic argument here is: James presided over the Jerusalem Council in 49 CE; the letter of James says nothing about the Council (namely its substance and outcome); ergo, the letter predates the Council. However, I tend to read James–at least the latter portion of chapter 2–as responding to an immature understanding of Paul’s teaching on justification. Since Paul only did one missionary tour prior to the Council, and since the general substance of Paul’s message remained the same; we can assume that it would take time for word of this immature understanding to reach James and thus require a response. Thus, this report would either be related to Paul’s first missionary tour or at least the second, which occurs after the Council.
** I admit that both Judah Messer Leon and Desiderius Erasmus conducted what could be classified as “rhetorical criticism”; however, their approach was distinct from how post-1969 Rhetorical Criticism is (typically) done.

apologies Sir Hoyle …

here’s your ribbon for participation; thanks for trying.

In other words: because scientists have recently verified Einstein’s theory of an expanding universe, which suggests (spatial and temporal) movement away from what Georges-Henri Lemaître dubbed a “singularity”, Fred Hoyle and his “steady-state” theory are given a respectful applause while being quietly ushered off stage.

However, with respect to both men (i.e. Einstein and Hoyle), I have to point out that neither this particular debate nor the respective theories each scientist espouses are either new or novel; both continue a (philosophical) dialogue dating back to at least Thales of Miletus (c. 640-547 BCE), and both merely rehash or reappropriate these older theories. The only real difference is that thinkers like Einstein and Holye merely present their theories in the garb of “modern (empirical) science”,¹ a garb ostensibly not colored by religious or theistic presuppositions.

In particular, Parmenides, the philosopher who was “reverenced and at the same time feared … [because of his] exceedingly wonderful depth of mind” (Plato, Theaetetus 183e), argued for the eternal existence of all finite/tangible elements in creation (see Aristotle, Physics 1.2.15). This presupposes–if not prefigures–the logic behind the famous Carl Sagan quote, “The universe is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” However, Parmenides allowed for the existence of a divine being (however deistic), one who is at least responsible for the eternal existence of creation and at most necessary for right interpretations of it.

Moreover, on the twin assumption that fire represents the cause and is the sustainer of all things (see Hippolytus, Refutation 9.10) and that fire by nature is ethereal, Heraclitus of Ephesus argued that all of creation not only has a finite beginning but also continues to move (or exist) in a state of flux–it is constantly “becoming” (see Plato, Theaetetus 160d; Aristotle, On the Soul 1.2.25; idem, Metaphysics 12.4-12). Heraclitus further argued that the otherwise chaotic state of “becoming” was held in harmonious balance by a divine-like principle which he (abstractly) termed, the λογος.²

It is also worth mentioning that this state of flux, in conjunction with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, provides the groundwork for theories regarding the end of the universe. In particular I have in mind the so-called “Big Crunch”–i.e. when the usable energy necessary for expansion is exhausted and/or “critical density” is reached, everything will simply collapse in on itself and form the largest black hole anyone has ever seen. (However, no one will ever see it [to prove the theory] because no one will be around to see it–not even those at Milliways).

This “Big Crunch” theory, too, is not the sole property of modern scientists relying solely on empirically-based data.³ Last time I checked, the Stoic philosophers, using Heraclitus’ notion of fire as the primeval substance, advocated the idea that cosmology is characterized by a cycle of creation, fiery collapse, and recreation–a cycle that continues ad infinitum (see Dio Cassius, History 52.4.3; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.21). Obviously, the notion of “recreation” in the Stoic model would be a point of difference in Einstein’s model. (If I’m not mistaken, Einstein held: once this universe was done, that’s it. Game over).

What’s the point of all this? In one sense, the sage observation of Ecclesiastes is apropos: “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1.9). In other sense, presenting an idea or theory as “new” or “innovative” or even “novel” when it’s based on earlier ideas seems to marginalize the great thinkers of ages past (simply because they are ancient and not Enlightened).

Moreover, calling it “new” or “innovative” or even “novel” simply because it operates with a-theistic presuppositions does not refute or discredit those who might have theistic presuppositions; it merely exposes the particular stance and method for interpreting the data, one that is not entirely “objective” in the sense that it operates independent of presuppositions.

¹ Just so that we’re clear: I am not opposed to science; in fact, I’m absolutely fascinated by it–especially cosmology.
² The similarities between this and Einstein’s “cosmological constant” should be obvious, although Einstein would readily reject the “divine” aspect of the Heraclitus’ idea.
³ Just for fun: the belief that all things can be explained empirically without recourse to theories of divine beings is not a revolutionary idea, one originating with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers. Such empirical and a-theistic beliefs and methodologies were intrinsic to the Atomistic philosophers from the 6th century BCE onward. The Roman philosopher, Lucreitus (1st century BCE) attempts to reinforce an empirical-based interpretation of creation.

chatter on the Spirit

All of the following sites came to my attention on Friday (28-Oct), but I am only just now able to mention them due to a somewhat hectic schedule.  Given the subject matter of my dissertation, and my general interest in theological discussion about the Spirit, I was naturally drawn to each of these sites:

  • The first is an article by Mark Cartledge on the ‘Nature and Function of New Testament Glossolalia’ (2000).  I remember reading it shortly after it came out and wanting to return to some of its arguments.  There was much that I appreciated about his presentation, but there were also points where I would want to nuance things a bit differently.
  • The second is a post by Scot McKnight, briefly interacting with a book by Mark Galli. I have not read the book, but I am quite interested to do so.  I especially like the notion of the Spirit being ‘disruptive’ in the life of the believer–’disruptive’ in a good sense of the term–but I’m not too comfortable with the role of the Spirit being associated with ‘chaos.’  I see what Galli is trying to do and suggest; I’m just thinking there could have been another way of saying things.
  • The third is a brief look at 1 Cor 13 by Mark Dabbs, a chapter that he considers to be the ‘the best chapter on spiritual gifts in the Bible’. While I depart only at minor points from Dabb’s treatment, I thoroughly appreciated this bit of sage advice: ‘don’t get caught up in the gift. Get caught up in the one who gave the gift, God, and how He wants us to use those gifts in loving ways.’
  • The fourth is from C. Michael Patton, ‘Why I Am/Not Charismatic: Biblical Arguments for Cessationism’, which is always a fun discussion to have.* As with the Cartledge article, there are points where I agree with Patton’s reasoning and points where I simply cannot agree.
  • The final one is from Sam Storms, ‘Why I Am/Not Charismatic: Biblical Arguments for Cessationism Response’, which, as you can probably gather, replies to Patton’s arguments. Storms raises a number of excellent points and questions for Patton, many with which I enjoy and support. However, there were also points in Storms’ argument where I found myself shaking my head.

I might take some time and enter these conversations, or at least offer my perspective and see what happens.

UPDATE [10-Nov]: C. Michael Patton has responded to Sam Storm’s response (see above), which once again created multifarious reactions within me. After reading Patton’s response, I have concluded that I will have to dive into this discussion and will do so in good time.  (I have to finish a couple more pressing matters first). However, I will offer this as a teaser: to both sides of the debate (i.e. Cessationists and Continuationists), those of you asking when a small number of specific gifts will cease;** I think the apostle Paul would say, “You’re asking the wrong question, and you’re focused on the wrong point.”  (That should ruffle some feathers).

* Yes, there was a bit of sarcasm in that comment.
** Let’s face it, the issue about the (non-)cessation of spiritual gifts is really only about the ones mentioned in 1 Cor 13.1-2, 8b–i.e. tongues, prophecy and knowledge.

olympic logo and eisegesis

Read this first. I’m not really sure what bothers me more about this story: the firm belief that the 2012 Olympic logo spells out ‘Zion’, or the passionate resolution to act in an unnecessary way because of that firm belief. The second would be perfectly understandable if (and only if) the first were true.

However, I’m just not seeing the word, ‘Zion’ in the logo–at least not on a normal/natural reading. The only way I can see it (and even this is iffy) is by reading it top-to-bottom, left-to-right with a rotation of the head 90 degrees for the last ‘letter’. (Raise your hand if you read like that on a regular basis). This way of reading only proves one thing: I have to force myself and change what is seen in order to see what I think I see in the first place.

If this is the sort of logic used by those threatening to boycott the Olympics, then I would hope to see similar complaints from the people of Isso, Italy and Ossi, Sardinia; personnel from the Open Source Information System (OSIS), the Sense of Smell Institute (SOSI), Izzo Golf, Zizo Systems International, and from Ozzi’s Steakburgers–just to name a few. Why these people? Because if you toy around with the ‘letters’ of the Olympic logo, these are the groups referred to by the toying.

More to the point, I seriously have my doubts that the organisers of the Olympics–much less those in charge of creating logos–purposely sought out the best way to sneak in the word, ‘Zion’ just to anger a particular group of people. It is more likely (and more reasonable) that the organisers and designers were simply being creative with the elements on hand–especially the numbers 2, 0, 1 and 2. As I suggested before, the only way that ‘Zion’ can be seen in the 2012 Olympic logo is if one wants to see it and is willing to distort what is seen in order to see it.

Industrial-sized blenders and funnels

Along with my usual responsibilities, I am working on four short articles to be published in the Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture (Baylor, 2010).  What I appreciate about this opportunity is that it forces me to think not only intentionally but also concisely, because the dictionary is aimed at undergraduates and the length is confined to 600 words (or less).  My approved four are: ‘Book of Life’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Signs of the Times’, and ‘Twinkling of an Eye’.  (For those keeping score: yes, I do have apocalyptic interests).

There were two topics, however, that I wanted to do but were already assigned: ‘Camel Through a Needle’s Eye’ and ‘Behemoth’; however, I found out that such was the case after I had written the one on the camel.  So I thought: why not post it and see what people think?  What follows is a slightly lengthen and adapted version of the article.  I would be curious to hear comments, criticisms, etc.

Camel Through a Needle’s Eye. This rather graphic phrase is found in Mark 10:25 (paralleled in Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25).  Some interpretative concerns are worth pursuing before attempting to ascertain the meaning of this phrase.

First, a variant reading in some Greek manuscripts reads, ‘a rope [or, cable].’ The variation is often explained as: a visual mistake on the part of the scribe making a copy of the text where the scribe accidentally read καμηλον (kamêlon [‘camel’]) as καμιλον (kamilon [‘rope/cable’]); an audible mistake, if the scribe was creating a copy via dictation, due to eta (η) and iota (ι) having similar sounds; or a scribe purposely replaced καμηλον with καμιλον in order to minimise the otherwise gross imagery.  However, the reading of καμηλον not only outweighs the marginal reading of καμιλον but also appears in earlier manuscripts.  The earliest reference for καμιλον is around 444 CE and not appearing again until the 9th century CE, whereas the reference for καμηλον ranges consistently from 215 CE onward.  Superficially, while the basic force of Jesus’ meaning would be retained whichever term was chosen; given the manuscript evidence (and other rules related to Textual Criticism), the reading of ‘camel’ is favoured in spite of (or, even because of) its graphic nature.

Second, considering the phrase as a whole, early theories suggested a small hole in the wall of a city serving as a gate through which travellers and their animals must pass.  However, given its humiliating size, camels were either excluded or squeezed through only after off-loading their cargo—and even then with great effort.  Some believe that this gate was called, ‘the Needle’s Eye’ and that Jesus’ comment in Mark 10.25 referenced not only this gate but also the great effort of bringing a camel through it.  Thus, the rich man could enter heaven only if he was willing to be ‘off-loaded’ and humbled before God.  Another theory, which is essentially a variation of the first one, suggested an extremely narrow mountain path known as ‘the Eye of the Needle’.  The tight squeeze of this path required the riders of camels to dismount and walk slowly through mountains thus becoming vulnerable to robbers.  While both of these options provide for interesting preaching material and captivating Sunday School lessons, there simply is no historical evidence to support them.  Furthermore, both theories minimise (if not subvert) the significance of Jesus’ statement by making the impossible humanly possible.

Third, concerning additional uses, the phrase can be found in later extra-biblical texts and in a way that militates against references to a physical location.  Berakhot 55b, exchanging camel for an elephant, stresses the impossibility of a given reality suggested by an evil spirit in a dream.  Similarly, Bava Metzi’a 38b criticises the argumentative tendencies of the Babylonians who proclaim things that are logical impossible–hence: with their logic, ‘they push an elephant through the eye of a needle.’  More in line with Jesus’ statement, Persiqta 25.163b nuances the meaning of the imagery with God saying, ‘Open for me a gate no wider than a needle’s eye, and I will open for you a gate through which camps and fortifications can pass.’  Thus, the focus is on faith in what God can do (cf. Acts of Peter and Andrew).  Similarly, yet from the other (logical) direction, the Qu’ran says, ‘the gates of heaven will not be opened for them nor shall they enter paradise until the camel passes through the eye of a needle’ (Surah 7.40), meaning: access can only be obtained by a divine act.

Finally, with regard to its meaning, two features should be noted.  First, the insanely hyperbolic nature of the phrase needs to be retained in order for Jesus’ statement to have its full effect.  Furthermore, the way in which the phrase is employed in extra-biblical texts supports a hyperbolic reading.  Second, Jesus does not suggest that the rich are excluded from heaven because they are rich; instead, they are excluded because they believe their riches entitle them access to heaven.  For Jesus, that belief is a logical (and theological) impossibility.