just for fun

I’m a bit behind, but he’s still quite a bit wrong

I’m still not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point during my later College years I became an avid reader. And it was around the same time that I wanted to start my own personal library. My collection at the time boasted of the handful of theology and history textbooks that I decided to keep. Things grew from there at a slow pace, and they were growing alongside my interest in reading.

Fast forward a bit: during my doctoral program (and just before, if I remember correctly), my library began also went digital. I started gathering books that were open to the public (via InternetArchive and GoogleBooks) as well as journal articles–many of which had to be obtained via Seminary/University access. The digital book collection, to date, stands at just over 2000; the digital article collection, to date, stands at just over 5500.¹ All of that to say, I’ve got some reading to do and I’m slowly working through it. And that also means I’m a little behind in my reading, but oh well.

This morning I decided to tackle some of the articles, and one them was by Mark D. Chapman called, “The Shortest Book in the Bible” (ExpT 118.11 [2007]: 546-58). While the article itself was interesting, I could not get past the title. “Why not?” Because it’s simply wrong. “Why is wrong?” Simple: the article dealt with Paul’s letter to Philemon. “Why is that wrong?” A few reasons.

First, the text that Chapman uses for his article is a letter, not a book. Sure, many of us are accustomed (unfortunately) to calling the texts of the Bible “books” regardless of their specific genres. But this custom or tradition–like all customs or traditions held without good cause–needs to be taken out back and buried. A bit harsh, sure. But there it is. So, that being the case, the title of the article should have said, “The Shortest Letter in the Bible.” But even that leads us to the next problem.

Second, Chapman’s focus text (i.e., Philemon) is not the shortest letter. Yes, it is certainly the shortest of Paul’s letters–coming in at 25 verses, 334 words. But just because its the shortest of Paul’s letters, that does not make the shortest. Because, and as much as I love Paul’s writings, there are other writers in the NT; so at best, we could say Philemon is one of the shortest letters. The honor of the shortest letter/text goes to…well, it depends. If we go by verse numbers, then the prize goes to 2 John, which weighs in at 13 verses, with 3 John coming in second place at 15 verses. Or if we go by word count, then the honor goes to 3 John, which finishes at 219 words, with 2 John coming in second at 245 words. Either way, Philemon is only the third shortest letter.

Third, someone might come back at me and say, “Well, Prof Chapman does qualify himself by saying it’s a short letter written to a person.” Okay, fine: that might rule out 2 John, which is ostensibly written to an entire congregation of believers (despite it having a specific addressee [Ὁ πρεσβύτερος ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις αὐτῆς, οὓς ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ]), but that does not rule out 3 John, which is addressed to an elder named, Gaius (Ὁ πρεσβύτερος Γαΐῳ τῷ ἀγαπητῷ, ὃν ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ). So, no dice. Philemon is still not a contender for the title of the shortest.

Fourth and finally, the title asserts a focus on the “shortest book in the Bible”, but the article never once focuses on the specific text that might fit that precise criteria. Because when one says, “Bible” that brings to mind at the very least the usual 66 texts of the Old and New Testaments–73 if we use the Catholic edition. Chapman’s focus was ultimately a NT text. Moreover, when one says, “book” that brings to mind a (more or less) specific kind of genre. As we’ve seen, Philemon does not fit that genre. And when one says, “shortest” that, as we’ve also seen, allows for a touch of ambiguity–i.e., it could be based on number of verses or words. But even with that ambiguity, there is only one text that better fits the description of “the shortest book in the Bible”, and that is the OT text of Obadiah: one chapter, 21 verses, 440 words.

So again, while Prof Chapman’s article was an interesting read, the title is an unfortunate gaffe.

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¹ The real numbers are 2148 books and 5746 articles, but I’m rounding down because of the possibility of duplicates. Hey, I’ve been collecting them since c.2006 (for the books) and c.2004 (for the articles), and I’m still trying to name/label them properly, so it’s possible that I’ve forgotten which one’s I’ve already downloaded and thus have copies.

a curious appeal

At present, we (our church) are doing a sermon series entitled: “Credo: Faith and Identity.” It’s a seven week series that runs through confession of the Apostle’s Creed. (In short: it’s a “what we believe” series). While preparing for the various topics, I refreshed myself on some of the common misconceptions about each point in the Creed, and I did this so that I could help our people become aware of such things. For the one on the Holy Spirit, I naturally defaulted to the views of the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses–since they are a modern group who flat out deny the personhood and (true) deity of the Spirit (see here).

What I found intriguing in their denying explanation is the first entry under their “Misconceptions” section, and entry that deals specifically with the personhood issue. As you can see (if you clicked on the link), the JWs declare: “Misconception: The ‘Holy Ghost,’ or holy spirit, is a person and is part of the Trinity, as stated at 1 John 5:7, 8 in the King James version of the Bible.” There are a handful of problems with this assumed misconception–not least of which are the underlying assumptions about the KJV (and the JWs incessant use of it as a reliable text)–but I’ll leave those alone for now. The thing that struck me was the response or rebuttal the JWs gave to this so-called misconception:

Fact: The King James version of the Bible includes at 1 John 5:7, 8 the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth.” However, researchers have found that those words were not written by the apostle John and so do not belong in the Bible. Professor Bruce M. Metzger wrote: “That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain.”—A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.

Okay, yes, what is claimed here is indeed factual. And it’s primarily factual because of the inferior (=crappy) manuscript testimony that undergirds the KJV translation. But let’s be fair and honest (and not merely selective with our “facts”): scholars have known this detail for ages. So, nothing new here; move on, please. Moreover, simply referring to this passage and pairing it with some inflated rhetoric does not deal with the assumed misconception in a convincing way. So, you’re going to need something more.

That “something more” would seem to be the JWs peculiar appeal to Metzger as their supporting voice for denying the personhood and deity of the Spirit in particular and the doctrine of the Trinity in general. True, Metzger–in nearly everything he writes on that passage–does say it is not a part of the original (or best/earliest) manuscripts and is most likely a (much) later addition. But again: so what? Scholars have known that for years. Even Erasmus knew about it. But here why I find their appeal peculiar:

There are many other passages in the New Testament which reveal how deeply the Trinitarian pattern was impressed upon the thinking of primitive Christianity. Thus, besides the direct and obvious statements in Matt 28:19 and II Cor 13:14, there are texts as I Cor 6:11, 12:4-[6]; II Cor 1.21-22; Gal 3:11-14; I Thess 5:18-19; I Pet 1:2; and others.[*] (Because the manuscript evidence of I John 5:7-8, King James Version, is insufficient, this text should not be used. There is, however, abundant proof for the doctrine of the Trinity elsewhere in the New Testament.)

That quote (with emphasis added) comes from… You guessed it: Bruce M. Metzger. And the source: a rather polemical article entitled, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ”, found in Theology Today 10.1 (1953): 65-85. It would seem counterproductive (and counter-intuitive) to rope in someone to support your case when that someone utterly contradicts (and rejects) the very case you’re trying to make. Moreover, Metzger was adamantly opposed to the hermeneutical gymnastics that JWs perform in order to justify the claims they often make–and not just about Trinitarian doctrine.

On a slightly different tact, I find it odd that on both their Holy Spirit page (noted above) and their Trinity page (see here), they do not engage with any of the texts that Metzger cites–instead they focus on only a very small handful which they have already deemed questionable. And while they do have these texts in their “translation”, in each case the reference to the Spirit is downplayed–i.e., it’s always lower case (because they think the Holy Spirit is a thing [an impersonal force] and not a person). But that is highly suggestive of the fact that they are allowing an existing theological presupposition to determine the interpretation of the texts that deal with a given topic, and thus interpret those texts a way that favors or supports their existing theological presupposition. That’s eisegesis. And in hermeneutics: eisegesis is bad.

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[*] Metzger provides a footnote to JND Kelly’s book, Early Christian Creeds (1950) for the interested reader to find a more extensive list of texts supporting a Trinitarian view.

a subtle poke(?)

While reading a published PhD dissertation from 1900 (as you do), I saw this in the introduction:

It is the purpose of this book to present a study of Alexander Campbell’s theology by the historical method. He was not a voice crying in the wilderness and having no connection with his age except to receive from its degeneracy an impulse toward reformation. Try as he would, he could not sweep aside all that men had thought during the past eighteen centuries, and lead a religious movement or formulate a system of Christian doctrine as if a true word had not been spoken since the death of the Apostles.¹

I may be wrong (which is always possible), but I think he just took a shot at Joseph Smith with that last sentence. Or maybe even Dispensationalism. Either way: If so… well played, sir.

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¹ W.E. Garrison, The Sources of Alexander Campbell’s Theology (St Louis: Christian Publishing, 1900), 14-15.

from the seedbed

In the mail yesterday, I received a copy of the Seedbed Sower’s Almanac. It’s a creative little booklet, with various bits of pastoral insight and adverts for new resources. It has also contains a few short articles related to Wesleyan theology. One of the bits of insight, by Howard Synder, caught my attention: the “Fourteen Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel”. While I don’t think I am permitted to reproduce the entire contents, I think I’m safe in teasing you with the topic-points that Synder gives. Here they are:

  1. Interpret the gospel primarily through Romans
  2. Focus solely on “personal salvation”
  3. Make heaven the goal
  4. Support the clergy/laity split
  5. Think economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns
  6. De-prioritize community
  7. Neglect the Old Testament
  8. Limit justice to personal righteousness
  9. Neglect intercession
  10. Make believers instead of disciples
  11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God
  12. View faith as just a part of life
  13. Disregard Genesis 9
  14. Divorce discipleship from creation care

What he has to say about each one is insightful. I would encourage you to get a copy of it, if you can, so you can see the rest.

Robinson adopting Paul’s style?

I may be completely alone in this, but I find humor in Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 1.14-16:

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Cripus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.

Every time I read this passage I hear the first bit (“I thank God . . .”) spoken with passion and definiteness. And then I imagine Paul thinking, “Oh crap, that’s not right”, before–under his breath, maybe or in hushed tones–mentioning the first half of the second bit (“Now I did . . .”), and then resuming the original passion and definiteness for the final claim, “beyond that . . .”.  It’s almost as though Paul’s desire to make a point got the better of him and he suddenly realized it, thus requiring some self-correction. (Or maybe Sosthenes chimed in and reminded Paul of what happened).

But there is something else about this passage that I appreciate, and that is Paul’s decision to leave the self-correction in the text for everyone to see. Sure, since this comment was early on the in letter, Paul could have said, “Scrap that and let’s start again.” But he doesn’t. It’s almost as though he’s saying: “See, I’m not perfect; I screw up from time to time. But I’m willing to own up to it.” Could this be a part (or an illustration) of the wider argument he is making to the Corinthians? Maybe.

However, answering that question is not the point of this post. This post is about something I noticed this morning while reading a little handbook on Romans. I found what looks to be John Robinson adopting Paul’s style:

Perhaps the easiest way to picture the progress of the epistle is as though you were making a journey by canal across an isthmus. You could imagine the epistle going from Corinth to Rome across the isthmus of Corinth, though the first canal was not in fact begun until about ten years after Paul was writing. It was started by the emperor Nero in 66-67 with a work-force largely composed of indentured Jewish slaves, and then abandoned unfinished. Until that time, smaller vessels were apparently dragged over bodily on some sort of slipway. But imagine, for the sake of the exercise . . .

–J.A.T. Robinson, Wrestling with Romans (1979), 9

It’s as though Robinson realizes, as soon as he writes it, that his analogy is crap–or at least historically inappropriate–and has to correct himself. Hence the over-qualification. As with Paul, what’s interesting in this case is that Robinson retains the analogy for the sake of his argument (which is quite good, by the way) and we get to see it–despite its inappropriateness. Any other writer today would rework the argument or come up with a different analogy for the final manuscript so as to avoid embarrassment. Not Robinson. And that’s commendable.

human error and bible translation

C. Michael Patton posted a brief list of mistakes in various Bible translations since the 16th century. Some are quite funny, and others invite a chorus of, “Oh my”. What I found a bit humorous was that the majority of the mistakes came from the (so-called) divinely inspired, sovereignly protected, infalliable, only true translation: the KJV.