Tag Archives: Paul

“Hi, I’m Paul and this is Barnabas…”

26 Apr

Bourges cathedral stained glass (image source: Wikipedia)

This last week I’ve been tutoring a group of trainees in ethnographic research methods. Sounds grand, but basically  this is about conducting formal interviews with a cultural informant in order to better understand a culture from an insider’s point of view.

All this made me wonder what Paul and Barnabas’s trip to Lystra might have looked like if they had enlisted the help of a local informant before heading straight into the market place to preach…

Paul & Barnabas: So, you’re from Lystra?

Random Lycaonian: That’s right, born and bred here. And proud of it {laughs}.

P&B: Thanks so much for being willing to speak to us.

RL: No problem. I saw you looked a bit lost, and well, as I speak a bit of Greek, I thought maybe I could help.

P&B: That’s great. It’s probably obvious, but we don’t understand a word of Lycaonian, so we sure do appreciate it. Do you think you could tell us a little about life here?

RL: Fire away. What d’you want to know?

P&B: Religion, for example, do you go to the temple to worship?

RL: Absolutely. Can’t be a true-blood Lycaonian without going to the temple.

P&B: Quite. So could you describe what a typical visit to the temple would look like?

RL: Sure. Well, you go to the temple. But you knew that already right?

P&B: {laughs} Yeah, we figured that one out! Can you go to any temple?

RL: I guess so, though most of us go to our local shrine, it’s just easier like that. Unless there is a festival and half the town is going, then we go to the big Zeus one, just outside the city.

Wilhelm Lübke's illustration of the temple as ...

Wilhelm Lübke’s illustration of the temple of Zeus as it might have looked in the 5th century BCE (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

P&B: Oh yes, we saw that one on the way here. Let’s imagine you are going to the big temple of Zeus then – what do you do when you get to the temple?

RL: Well, it depends. If there is a special festival it’s different.

P&B: What about a normal day when there’s no festival?

RL: OK, so I go in, and I stand at the back for a minute. That temple is something else. Just awesome, man. Then I go to the front and talk to one of the gods.

P&B: So you have various gods? Can you give me the names of your gods?

RL. There are dozens of them! Do you want them all?

P&B: Another day maybe. Which are the most important ones for you?

RL: Well, Zeus is number one. He’s my favourite, and this is his temple after all, so I would always talk to him first. And then there’s Hermes. There are a few others but I guess those are the most important two.

P&B: Zeus and Hermes. That’s really interesting. What kind of things would you say to Zeus that you wouldn’t say to Hermes?

RL: Well Zeus is mega busy, I mean he’s the top guy. So I wouldn’t bother him most of the time. Only for something really important that I don’t think the others would be able to cope with. Or sometimes if one of the others is giving me grief I’ll go and ask Zeus to get them to cut me some slack. Especially that Ares guy, I just can’t make him out.

P&B: And what about Hermes?

RL: To be honest, I don’t say much to him. He won’t stand still, flying up and down from Olympus. He’s the one who speaks to us, brings us Zeus’s messages, you know, but he’s too busy to listen. No point talking to him!

P&B: And what happens in a festival?

RL: Well, normally there’ll be a sacrifice.

P&B: A sacrifice?

RL: Yeah, not a human one {laughs}.

P&B: Phew! What animals can be sacrificed?

RL: Well it can be a sheep or a goat, but for that really special occasion, it’s just got to be a bull. Or two. Or more even on a really special occasion.

P&B: What would be a really special occasion?

RL: Well, imagine that Zeus came here. I mean here, not Athens or Delphi, but suppose, just suppose, he turned up here. And did something amazing.

P&B: What sort of thing would be amazing for you? I mean, what would make you think it was Zeus?

RL: Oh I don’t know. Like, see that guy sat over there? The one begging?

P&B: Um-hum.

Raphael: The Sacrifice at Lystra (image source: Wikipedia)

Raphael: The Sacrifice at Lystra (image source: Wikipedia)

RL: Well, he’s never walked. Born like that, poor chap. What if Zeus came along – with Hermes, of course, he never goes anywhere without Hermes – and Zeus says to him – I mean Hermes, Zeus just tells him what to say – so Hermes says to him “stand up”, and he does. Now that would be something else. Boy, would we celebrate that. There’d be flowers, garlands and garlands of them, and we might even make it to a dozen bulls. The priests would start playing their drums and shouting, then they’d come out from the temple all dancing and singing, it would be wild. You’d know something special was going on and the whole town would turn out to sacrifice to them. Ooh, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

P&B: Us too. Really appreciate the heads up {nervous laugh}.

RL: You’re welcome. See you around then. By the way, what did you two say you were doing here?…


Beat until stiff and stand in the fridge

20 May

Words do not carry immutable meaning as defined by an entry in a dictionary. Certainly, they bring core meaning with them, but words are moulded both by the words that accompany them and the stage on which they are placed. The whole is irremediably more than the sum of its parts.

This is true of every single piece of communication, the Bible included. Meaning must be deduced from the context in which communication is constructed and the way words combine together, as much as from what any one word itself may be said to “mean”. Context is everything in interpreting language.

In biblical interpretation, the literary context is one level that needs to be explored: genre of language, the paragraph as a unit of thought, the flow of the author’s argument, grammar and syntax, and the meaning of individual words as used by that writer, in the rest of Scripture, or in contemporary writings. In that sense, the Bible is literature, and behaves like any other piece of writing. We ignore that to our detriment.

Beyond the level of literary context, historical and cultural context provide the keys for correct understanding. A couple of examples I trust will help us when we – eventually! – get back to 1 Timothy.

Numbers 5:11-31 contains an example of what is known as “trial by ordeal”, a means of appealing to the supernatural for confirmation of guilt or innocence. Jealous husbands pay close attention. (Nothing here about husbands straying from the marital bed, but that’s another story…)

If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband […] and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure – or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure – then he is to take his wife to the priest. […] After the priest has made the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the [offerings] for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you […] may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have […] defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband […] May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.” He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering.

Outside its immediate historical context, this procedure is quite simply beyond comprehension, and may even strike us as barbaric and sexist. When considering a passage such as this, pretty much everyone can see the need to take the historical background into consideration. All Scripture has its own historical and cultural context, however, which conditions how a passage was written, even if on a surface level the text appears to be more immediately understandable. We cannot just assume that they thought as we think today. What would the text have meant to them, in their world, at their time, with their cultural norms?

One more. Beyond general historical-cultural context, much of the Bible was written with specific circumstances in mind, and nowhere is this more marked than in the epistles. Known as “occasional” documents, most were written to concrete people to address specific needs or questions; they were provoked by “occasions” of concern to the writers, most often situations of heresy or conflict that needed correction. It is rarely possible to unearth every detail of the circumstances behind a portion of an epistle – reading them can at times feel like listening to one side of a telephone conversation – but we must at least try. Let’s take a passage from 1 Corinthians:

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him […] Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. […] Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. […] From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none. […] So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (1 Corinthians 7:20-38)

Without telling us exactly what difficulties the Christian community of Corinth was facing, Paul does at least let us know that his instructions are not permanent but relate to the needs of the moment. Imagine the theological gymnastics needed if we were to attempt obedience to Paul’s words in all places and times… The epistles do not always reveal to us the circumstances that motivated the apostle to write, but again, those circumstances were nevertheless there, and influence how the text is to be read. To interpret without attempting to see the underlying situation is to invite misunderstanding; doing this with 1 Timothy 2 has had drastic consequences throughout church history.

Sound like hard work? Mmm… maybe it is, but that does not make it any the less necessary. In our interaction with Scripture we can get motivation for the “harder” stuff by the “easier” things. Some gems sit John-Three-Sixteen-like on the surface; others require a “search for wisdom as for buried treasure” attitude to find them. Collecting a few surface gems can give motivation to dig a little more deeply, but dig we must.

Because, as you no doubt already know, a text without a context is often said to be a mere pretext. I would go a little further than that: a text without a context becomes a con-text, a word with the authority of Scripture which can be used to say absolutely anything, in order to impose already decided meaning and manipulate those who listen to us. We owe it to God, to his Word and to his people to aim to do better than that.

So, respect the literary context. Find out as much as you can about the general historical and cultural background to a passage. And discover the immediate “occasion” that underlies it. Read the text with all that in mind, particularly if reading a cookery book. Otherwise “beat until stiff and stand in the fridge” might get you into more trouble than you bargained for.

“The audience are literally electrified and glued to their seats”

7 May

Having just watched A.N. Jacobs’ TED talk on “The Year of Living Biblically”, in which he tried to live out – literally – every one of the Bible’s commands, I thought it a good moment to fire off a couple of thoughts on biblical interpretation. You see, a couple of Sundays ago we hit 1 Timothy 2 in our small group Bible study… certainly got people talking — thankfully with respect and much grace, albeit not always with a whole lot of understanding — and it’s been going round in my head since then.

Just how are we supposed to view this text?

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1Timothy 2:8-15)

Whilst some called for a “literal” interpretation, we soon got into deep water with that one. It went a bit like this:

What is modesty, decency and propriety in dress sense? In India it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to show her midriff under a sari, but in Spain? If topless is OK for Kalahari Bushman women, why is it frowned upon for good Christians at the beach? Is decency, then, in fact a cultural construct with no absolutes at all? And if so, how do we assign absolute value to anything in Scripture? Who decides what is cultural and what is not, what is to be taken “literally” and what needs cultural unpacking?

But back to Paul’s list for now. When it comes to hairstyles, just how elaborate is elaborate? Curlers OK? What about highlights? Perms? Gel must be acceptable, though we have no agreement on how much hairspray we can use before reckoning that it really must be classed as elaborate if it needs that much to keep it in place…

No gold? What, none at all? What about my wedding ring, that’s hardly bling is it? And pearls — are cultured pearls OK? Imitation pearls? What if you can’t tell, is it OK to ask someone if their string of pearls is genuine? We’d better stick to silver, emeralds and rubies then, at least they are not banned! We could even start a new line in 1 Timothy 2 compliant luxury jewelry…

Back to clothes. At what price does a shirt become expensive? What if I got a $129.99 pair of Levis in a sale for $14.99, or last year’s model as a hand-me-down from my must-have-the-latest-fashion more-money-than-sense neighbours, do they still count as “expensive clothes”? Anyway, isn’t price a relative concept? What is expensive in Bangladesh might be cheap in Brick Lane. And if that is relative and cultural, maybe the whole text is. Where does that leave us? Whatever, one thing is clear if we are after literal interpretations — there is no mention of make-up, so don’t worry ladies, at least you can keep the lipstick, foundation and “I’m worth it” mascara.

And that’s all before we get to the thornier issue of women teaching and holding authority, or even speaking at all. “If they could just keep quiet, that would save us all a lot of headaches, ha ha”. LOL… not; jokes from stereotypes don’t help achieve consensus in understanding. Maybe we should allow women to take on roles where they don’t have to be telling men what to do? That does away with leading worship then — “Please stand to sing the next hymn…” But there again, the Greek word used — αὐθεντεῖν, authentein — seems to mean “to usurp authority” more than just to hold authority. Maybe a woman can do anything as long as a man has told her she can. Or maybe it’s just about wives and husbands, not all women and all men; as long as her husband is happy, it’s OK. Not sure where that leaves single women though. Maybe they are exempt and can do what they like. Or maybe they are the ones that should just keep quiet…

Whatever, let’s not forget that all this isn’t Paul’s big idea — he draws it from Scripture. The biblical underpinnings of our theology are vital. So, yes, Adam was formed first. But if creative order is that important, wasn’t the donkey formed before Adam? And for that matter, even if Eve was the first to take a bite out of the proverbial apple, Paul — who elsewhere lays the blame fairly and squarely with Adam — does appear overly harsh in suggesting that all women share her undiscerning taste in fruit peddlers.

What’s all this about Eve anyway? Well, maybe Paul really does mean that all women are gullible and easily deceived, so it’s best not to let them teach. It’s not all bad news, though. We are only going to ban women from teaching men; they can still teach heresy to our children in Sunday school if they like. And it only applies to church too — teaching, even adult literacy, is still an ideal career for the good Christian woman wanting to make a positive impact on her society.

Then, just when we think we might be making some progress against a strong headwind, we hit verse 15 — not very good news for the single ladies in our midst. The theological overtones of “saved” are strong and resist any other translation — but am I really to think that salvation for men is by faith, and for women, by having kids? Could it not be instead that Paul means that women will be kept safe through childbirth? Given the number that die in giving life to another, that would hardly seem likely. Unless, that is, we are going to accuse those that do die of “lack of faith” (plus, in this case, love and holiness with propriety), the universal get-out clause for every case of non-recovery at the hands of a faith-healer. The dead don’t argue, so perhaps we will just have to take their word for it… Whatever, this verse cannot be separated from the rest; we cannot sanction a “literal” interpretation of verse 12 unless ready to to the same with verse 15. The two form part of one unified thought in Paul”s mind and must be understood together. The necessary flight from dogmatism that accompanies a humble reading of verse 15 is not a bolt-on extra to categorical statements about the role of women in church but has to characterize our reading of the whole passage.

So much for a “literal interpretation”.

In reality, a “literal interpretation” of Scripture is as unreal as an unbiased opinion. An opinion, of necessity, carries the individual’s bias. Likewise, as soon as we use the word “interpretation”, we leave “literal” behind. Whilst we may be deceived by some “easier” texts into thinking that we take Scripture literally, we do not. Everything we read is understood through the interpretive filter that connects us with the world around us. So the question is not whether we interpret Scripture or take it literally, but whether we interpret it well.

What does that mean for 1 Timothy 2? That will have to wait for another day.

PS. For those mystified by the title, the BBC television commentator Ted Lowe made that statement during a particularly exciting (!) snooker match. His other classic comment was from the 1970s, aiming to help viewers who were not privileged to own one of the new colour televisions: “Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”

Say “Shibboleth”…

22 Mar

Anyone know what this is a photo of, that is, what the Hebrew letter sin/shin is written on? No prizes this time...

This week and next sees me in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching an introduction to linguistics and language learning skills to 17 Koreans, 3 Brits and 1 American. No Jews this time, though there are a few times in Scripture when some unsuspecting Israelites may have wished they had had the chance to do this course. Some basic skills in phonetics or techniques for language learning in the community might just have spared them a headache or two, or even losing their heads completely in one particular instance.

In one of the sadder incidents in the Old Testament, one which along with many others in the book of Judges seems to illustrate the depths to which Israel had fallen, we read that:

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Judges 12:4-6)

Forty-two thousand! Killed for shpeaking with a funny acshent. Wow.

Thankfully, other instances had less far-reaching consequences. Let’s fast forward a few centuries till we meet Peter warming himself by the fire in the Sanhedrin courtyard during Jesus’ trial.

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:73-74)

Peter was unmistakably a Galilean; as Matthew says, his every word gave it away. And being a Galilean hanging out in Jerusalem at that precise moment in time, in the Sanhedrin even, at once revealed who Peter was — in the eyes of any onlooker, he simply must be one of Jesus’ cronies.

Language is not just a means of communication; it is our identity, part of who we are, and who others see us to be. Like it or not, it associates us with certain social or racial groups and defines to the mind of everyone else  just who we are.

A couple of decades later, even some basic phrases may have helped another two apostles stay clear of a potentially very difficult situation.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”  Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.  The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting:  “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. […] Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Barnabus watches as Paul leads away the cow that was about to be sacrificed; 12th-13th century stained glass at Bourges cathedral.

Maybe “Teach Yourself Lycaonian” was one of the parchment scrolls that Paul had left in Troas. Whatever, it seems that Paul and Barnabas did not get what was going on; they had not stopped to learn the local peoples’ language. Starting in Greek speaking synagogues, and preaching using the Greek Septuagint translation, Paul brought the gospel to scattered Jews and Gentile God-fearers. But pure pagans who spoke a different language were quite a different challenge. A bit like us today — for after all, “everyone understands English these days” — it is alright to preach and think that they are understanding us, but at times it would be more useful if we could understand them!

It is impossible to “just preach the gospel”, for “the gospel” does not exist in some a-cultural form that can be applied across the whole gamut of human existence. The gospel comes to us in ways we understand, and must be passed on to others in ways that they in turn will be able to understand. These ways may not be ours, and without language that gives us access to the heart, history and communication patterns of a people, we may find that they find our preaching, at best, simply incomprehensible.

For all his commission as the “apostle to the Gentiles”, it seems that in his ministry Paul never got further than using Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. As a bi-cultural person, brought up as a Roman citizen in the Jewish diaspora and educated in Greek, he straddled these cultures but never seems to have strayed beyond the bounds of these familiar paths, much less learned a language for pioneer ministry in the process.

For this as much as for any other reason Paul cannot be considered the model par excellence for the cross-cultural worker today. For this we have to look to another, to the one who left his “home culture”, immersed himself in another, took on its ways — including learning relevant languages — and in every way became “one of them”: Jesus of Nazareth.

Language learning is not an optional extra for the cross-cultural worker. As a singular aspect of culture, language becomes the bottleneck through which our knowledge and ministry must pass. To enter another’s world necessarily involves us in learning their language; to do anything else is to declare their identity irrelevant. Commitment to language learning identifies us in a way that no other skill does with the people we work amongst. To speak another’s language (well) is a to honour them and opens the door to an insider’s understanding of the culture that in turn enables us to communicate in relevant ways. Deprived of this knowledge, our communication will remain stilted and we will fail to develop appropriately contextualised churches, if we even succeed in communicating the gospel at all. As Eugene Nida said:

Expert language ability helps to identify the missionary most effectively with the indigenous society, and such identification is essential to a truly successful ministry. As missionaries we must work in the field, not on the field. It is not the geographical scope, but the degree of cultural penetration which marks truly effective missionary enterprise, and there is no substitute for proper use of the local idiom.

Comparative phonetics here we come!

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