Saturday, October 29, 2022

Orthographic Oddities in Identifying Jesus

Orthography is the study of how words are spelled and written in a text, or in general, the standardization of word-forms. Ancient Greek manuscripts frequently contain numerous instances of orthographical variations in the spelling of words (misspellings?) and other errors. Before the use of dictionaries, which help to standardize the use of language, the same is true in all languages. What follows in this essay is one of those orthographical oddities in the Greek New Testament with regard to words used to identify Jesus.

            Matthew (2:1, 4-5) and Luke (2:4-7) agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and they connect Jesus to the village of Nazareth in different ways, as though Nazareth were the better-known identification. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Egypt and then go to Nazaret (Matt 2:13-23) in accordance with prophecy (Matt 2:14-15, 23).1 In Luke, Mary and Joseph return to their own city Nazareth (Luke 2:39)—no prophecy involved.2 There are, here, two different spellings of the small village associated with Jesus. And there is yet a third spelling of the village name, Nazara (Matt 4:13; Luke 4:16). In time, the connection of the village with the man has become a near mantra in confessional and academic circles alike. He is "Jesus of Nazareth." What has led archaeologists and scholars in general to settle on the name Nazareth for the village? I suppose the substantive question is: what was the village generally called some thirty or forty years before Mark wrote (which was around 70)? The present site of the village where Jesus grew to adulthood is apparently at best traditional, for the name of the site is unconfirmed by any ancient inscriptions or texts.3

            Rather than "Jesus of Nazareth" there is another related title given to Jesus in the New Testament. He is described as "Jesus the Nazarene," and is referred to in this manner far more often than he is called "Jesus of Nazareth" in the New Testament. The word Nazarene also appears in multiple forms. It appears several times as Nazarēnos (Mark 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Luke 4:34; 24:19). More often it appears with an awkward form as Nazōpaios (Matt 2:23; 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7; 19:19; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 22:8; 24:5; 26:9). Bible translators more often translate these two words as a noun "Nazareth," rather than an adjective "Nazarene or Nazorean." Usually Nazarene is the preferred translation. "Jesus the Nazarene" (or Nazorean) is an expression describing who he is.4 Calling him "Jesus of Nazareth" describes where he is from.

            Why would there be such plurality of orthographical forms to refer to Jesus? I can think of three. Possibly the author of the text is slavishly following some source or authority, or the author is simply too careless to standardize the terms being used, or because copiers of the text made mistakes that were perpetuated without thinking by other scribes.5

Some translators flag the problem of the awkward adjective Nazorean by providing a note that the word Nazarene, which they put in their text, is literally Nazorean (for example, Bart Ehrman's translation of the New Testament and the New Revised Standard Version). Most translators do not provide an explanatory note and simply use Nazareth or Nazorean instead.

The sum of the matter is that the problem of these orthographical differences in the manuscripts is not generally known and remains unresolved, so far as I know; Jesus remains generally known today as Jesus of Nazareth, rather than Jesus, the Nazarene (or Nazorean), as he was in the first century. In our earliest source, the Gospel of Mark, the name Nazareth does not even appear, and Jesus is known as the Nazarene.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For the name Nazaret see: Matt 2:23; Mark 1:9; John 1:45, 46.

2For the name Nazareth see: Matt 21:11; Luke 1:26; 2:4, 39, 51; Acts 10:38.

3Lamoine Devries, "Nazareth," in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol 4, 240-41. Devries says: "The unimportance of Nazareth is reflected in the absence of references to the name in any ancient inscriptions or texts."

4Matthew (2:23) says that Jesus was a Nazarene in fulfilment of prophecy, but there is no such prophecy in the Old Testament. Luke notes that Paul was accused of belonging to the sect of the Nazarenes (Nazōpaiōn, Acts 24:5).

5There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament texts and most of them were copies, which themselves were recopied by scribes.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Luck and the Kingdom of God

The dictionary definition of luck is: "the seemingly chance happening of events that affect someone." What we dub "Luck" (whether good or bad) is our interpretation of life's randomness. The term "kingdom of God" is a mistranslation of the expression basileia tou theou (reign of God). Basileia is a word properly translated a "royal reign"; it describes the extent of kingly influence—in this case the effective reach of God's rule. Basileia does not describe a specific geographical territory, but rather refers to a king's influence over his subjects, those under his rule. Being in the kingdom of God is accepting God's rule over one's self.

I was surprised, then, to hear a Baptist preacher exclaim last week: "There ain't no Luck in the kingdom of God!" On the basis of the definitions above, his affirmation on its face would seem to be that chance happenings do not affect one who has accepted God's rule. The difficulty with the minister's statement is that all human beings (Christian and non-Christian) live in a world that is obviously under the control of Powers, natural, political, commercial, etc., that are obviously not under the influence of God's rule.1 Even Paul's disciple, the author of Ephesians seemed to recognize that hostile powers are indigenous to our cosmos:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12, NRSV).

Christians do not yet live in a "territory" that is under God's control, but in a territory largely hostile to all human beings, even though some may already have accepted God's rule over themselves. This already/not yet ambiguity explains the Christian's present situation: the kingdom of God is a future reality (Rom 6:9; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21), even though one may now be experiencing its benefits (Mark 1:15; Rom 14:17). In short, human beings live in a hostile world where surprisingly good things or depressingly bad things can unexpectedly happen to any of us. Even Christians might win the lottery.

            During the Hellenistic Period of Classical antiquity (323-33 BCE) there was a tendency for the Greeks and Romans to personify abstract concepts. They turned the concept of luck or fortune into the capricious Goddess, Tychē. Her existence was a recognition of their universal experience that one's fortunes (or luck) in life could never be controlled or predicted.2

From my perspective a belief in luck is simply a recognition of a natural law, something like gravity in the physical sciences. This law may be simply stated as follows: "the unexpected sometimes happens." The most carefully laid plans or intentions are always subject to this law. We describe it popularly from our perspective as good or bad luck, meaning that it was unexpected.

            The minister seemed to think that Christians are exempt from this natural law, but even certain writers of the New Testament seem cognizant of life's unexpected and sometimes turbulent ups and downs, particularly the downs—for example, Paul's life experiences as he described them.3 The author of First Peter cautioned the exiles in the "Dispersion" (1 Pet 1:1) "not to be surprised" at the unexpected "fiery trial" that had overtaken them (1 Pet 4:12). Stuff, both good and bad, happened to the early followers of Jesus as well. The universal cosmic law of the unexpected applies to all for whom the law of gravity applies. Apparently, not everything that happens is what God wants to happen.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019): "Natural Disasters, Acts of God, and the Bible," 26-28; "Chance, Luck, Randomness, and the Being of God," 28-30, "Does Anything Happen by Chance?," 30-33.

2Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdman's, 2003), 242.

3Here are only a few of the passages from his letters describing his own personal ups and downs in life, particularly the downs: Rom 8:18, 35-39; 1 Cor 4:11-13; 1 Cor 1:3-11; 11;23-27.