Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Chance Meeting that produced a Book

Here is something a little different. I have asked Rev. Dr. Jerry B. Cain, retired President of Judson University in Elgin Illinois, to provide a guest essay announcing the appearance of an important new book on the history of Christianity in Myanmar: by Angelene Naw, The History of the Karen People of Burma (ed. Jerry Cain; King of Prussia, PA: Judson Press, 2023).* What follows is Jerry’s review of the book for the curious reader. 

Charles W. Hedrick 

The History of the Karen People of Burma recounts the interactions of the three m’s that historians of the nineteenth century colonial period always have to negotiate—merchants, missionaries, militaries. The Karens (CAH-ren) were an animistic minority in Burma who took to the message of American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) while the majority Buddhist Burmese ignored or even persecuted him. Primed by a legend that a white man with a book would arrive on a ship from the west and show them their destiny, the Karens responded positively when Ann and Adoniram Judson disembarked from the Georgiana in the summer of 1813 with a Bible. Prophecy fulfilled!

This first generation of missionaries codified the language of the Karens (and the Burmese) setting up schools to teach them how to read and write their own language as well as English. When the British colonizers needed local bureaucrats, the Karens were skilled to fill these administrative positions often at the expense of the less-trained majority Burmese Buddhists. And the tensions grew as the British took more and more of Burma through three wars (1824-26, 1852-53, 1885) and animosity grew between the majority Burmese and the minority Karens.

Then came the twentieth century and the independence movements in India and southeast Asia. WWII stalled those independence efforts and in Burma the Karens sided with the British while the Burmese sided with the Japanese creating more hatred. Then the players changed, the war ended and independence was experienced, sort of. The story continues into the twenty-first century as both groups, Burmese and Karens, remember their sectarian and ethic struggles of the past 200 years.

Dr. Angelene Naw is uniquely qualified to describe the history of the Karen people, which is most often retold as oral history. She was born during the insurgencies of post-WWII Burma and lived her first six years in the jungles where her father was an officer for the Karen army in rebellion against the new government of Burma. Dr. Naw finished two degrees from the University of Rangoon before completing her PhD at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. I am honored that she came to the US to teach Asian history and culture at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, where I served as president.

The first Burmese I ever met was John Shandy, a former Buddhist monk, who was employed on the plant operations staff by Judson University. The arrival of Dr. Naw made number two from Myanmar. Soon another refugee couple came to town and the only place the Baptist church could find them a job was at the local casino. Under the leadership of Dr. Naw, who was a rock star in the diaspora Karen-American community, we gathered about 50 families and started the Karen Baptist Church of Western Chicago. (When I retired and moved to Kansas City, I affiliated with the Grace Baptist Church that hosts a Karen congregation every Sunday afternoon.)

My role in creating the book was to make Dr. Naw’s book readable for the western reading public. We had two audiences in mind for this publication, the student studying Southeast Asian history and the Karen diaspora spread around the world who will never return to Burma nor experience their desired independent nation, which they named Kawthoolei. Persecuted in Myanmar, the Karens have been emigrating to the US, Australia, Norway, Singapore, and other places from four major refugee camps in Thailand where they were settled by the United Nations. The History of the Karen People of Burma is now being translated into the Karen language to better reach these two audiences.

The History of the Karen People of Burma describes pre-colonial Burma before 1824 when the British military moved in and the impact of the American missionaries in establishing Karendom. The educational thirst of the Karen people was addressed by the missionaries creating tension between the minority Karens and the majority Burmese. The political and military intrigues of WWII between the Japanese, British, Burmese, and the Karens are described in detail because Dr. Naw and her family were intimately involved. The post-WWII political and military struggles by the Karen people take this story into the 21st century.

Since the last military coup of February 1, 2021, the Karens have again been given the “dirty end of the stick,” as they would say. Public focus has been on the Muslim Rohingya on the western side of Myanmar but forced labor, targeted bombing, and discrimination against Christian Karens on the eastern side continues as it has for the past 200 years. Their plight has been captured in major motion pictures including a 2008 Rambo movie starring Sylvester Stallone. The story of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been told and retold with great appreciation, but there has been little political movement from the outside world. She has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment since the 2-1-21 junta took over.

The History of the Karen People of Burma is important for anyone who wants to understand the recurring discord and dysfunction of cultural and political systems in modern Myanmar. It provides a 30,000-foot overview of the recycling military rule and futile attempts at democracy, and the recurring religious turmoil involving Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians from one who has lived it and continues to love her country with all its problems.

Jerry Cain

*For details on how to purchase the book see https://www.judsonpress.com/Products/J306/the-history-of-the-karen-people-of-burma.aspx

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Does God Tempt People to do the Wrong Thing?

Or put another way the question is: does God as depicted in the Bible entice, seduce, or lure us humans into improper behavior? I know the question may sound strange, until you recall that one petition of the Lord's Prayer is usually translated as "do not lead us into temptation" (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4; Didache, 8:2). Each week the Lord's prayer is recited in Christian congregations around the world. It is believed by the faithful to be a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. I have often wondered, did Jesus himself pray such a prayer?1 And when the prayer is offered at funerals and church meetings for what exactly is a person praying when s/he says "do not lead us into temptation"? Why would anyone suppose God would entice us to do something we should not do?

            Some translations attempt to resolve the situation by translating the petition used in the prayer as "do not put us to the test," or "do not bring us to the time of trial," as, for example, the New Revised Standard and Revised English Bible translate the word. The Greek word used in the prayer (peirazō), however, according to the lexicons can be used both ways, as either a temptation to do something wrong, or as a test to prove someone. The Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon prefers the translation of an "attempt to make someone do something wrong, temptation, enticement to sin" for both Matt 6:13 and Luke 11:4.

            The Greek word peirazō is used a number of times in the New Testament where it is clear that the situation depicted concerned an enticement to behave improperly, as for example, when the devil is tempting Jesus (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; see also 1 Thess 3:5 and Jas 1:13-15). In other instances, the situation clearly involves a testing: 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Cor 13:5; Rev: 3:10.

            In the Hebrew Bible God is frequently depicted as testing the Israelites. For example, God tested the faith of Abraham by telling him to offer his only son as a sacrifice (Gen 22:1-2). The stated reason was that God wanted to test his faith (Gen 22:12).2 There are also other passages where the Israelites tested God,3 although God specifically said they should not put the Lord to the test (Deut 6:16).

            I know of only one passage where God is involved in a situation clearly deceiving people in order to tempt them to improper behavior (1 Kgs 22:19-23). The prophet Micaiah had a vision of the Lord on his throne surrounded by the host of heaven. In the passage the Lord wanted to deceive King Ahab and solicited a "lying spirit" to "entice Ahab so that he would go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead" (1 Kgs 22:20). One Spirit came forward saying "I will entice him" (1 Kgs 22:21). And the Lord said, "you are to entice him and you will succeed, go forth and do so" (1 Kgs 22:22).4 One might well suspect from this passage that the ancient Israelite belief included a God who tempted them to improper or hurtful conduct (of course, believing a thing to be so does not make it so). At this point one may recall comedian Flip Wilson's immortal line: "The devil made me do it," which is the prevailing view amongst the faithful: the devil is our tempter. But still the Lord's prayer in most translations petitions God not to tempt us. Why?

One might also well suspect that God should have known the probable outcome when he placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, telling them there was only one tree whose fruit they must avoid (Gen 3:1-7). Of course, it was the serpent that actually tempted Eve (2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14), but one might make a credible case that the enticement was actually caused by God who set Eve up for her lapse, particularly since the popular belief is that God always knows what is going to happen. What was the serpent doing in the Garden of Eden, if it wasn't by divine design in the first place?

And this brings us back to where we began; for what exactly does one pray when one utters the words of the Lord's prayer: "lead us not into temptation"? Did Jesus think that God brought people into temptation in order to test them? Why not, if God also tested them in other ways? What is temptation if not simply another way of testing the faithful? So how should we pray that one line of the Lord's prayer?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See R. Funk and R. Hoover, The Five Gospels. What did Jesus Really Say? (Polebridge/Macmillan, 1993). The Jesus Seminar colored this line of the petition Grey, meaning for the Seminar that Jesus did not say it.

2Here are other instances where God tested the Israelites: Exod 17:2, 7; Deut 8:2, 16; 13:3; 33:8; Jdg 2:21-22; 3:1, 4; 2 Chron 32:31; Ps 26:2; Ps 78:41.

3In some passages The Israelites tested God: Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; 2 Kgs 20:8-11); Ps 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; 106:14; Isa 7:10-12.

4The same Hebrew word is used also in the following instances, where enticement seems the better translation: Exod 22:16; Jdg 14:15; 16:5; Prov 1:10-11; 16:29.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Is God Immutable?

Immutability means never changing. I recently heard a minister declare during the Sunday morning preaching hour: “Our God will never change!” Is that true, do you suppose? As is the case with all things religious: it depends on whom you ask. The minister declared what he (and his congregation?) believed about God. Others, of course, may not share that view. The question, however, is interesting and it may yet be a question that will remain open in spite of the heat of opinion on both sides of the answers.

With respect to the Greek Gods who frequently changed their shapes to encounter human beings and hence appeared frequently in disguise, Plato argued the following:

God is altogether sincere and true in deed and word, and neither changes himself nor deceives others by visions or words or the sending of signs in waking or in dreams.1

His rationale is that God is perfect and has no need to change. Therefore “any change must be for the worse. For God’s Goodness is perfect.”2

In his Republic, Plato dismisses the idea found in Greek myth and poetry that the gods can change in any way. Rather, Plato argues, God is perfect and cannot and does not change. For if a god is already the best possible in these respects, a god cannot change for the better. But being perfect includes being immune to change for the worse — too powerful to have it imposed without permission and too good to permit it. Thus, a god cannot improve or deteriorate, making any change within God impossible. Following Plato, the idea that God is perfect and cannot change became widely accepted among philosophers. Aristotle also accepted the idea that God was perfect and unchanging and it became a central point of his philosophy, which would influence philosophers and theologians throughout the Middle Ages.3

The view that God (the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible) will never change is still popular today. There are a number of passages in the Bible that are usually cited as confirming the idea that God does not change. For example, Malachi, the prophet, quotes God (translated into KJV language) as saying: “For I the Lord do not change” (3:6).4

            As happens, however, so often, between texts written over hundreds of years apart, if one looks long enough one will find contradictory ideas. Here are a number of biblical texts that (surprisingly) depict God as changing.5

When God saw what they did how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it. (RSV Jonah 3:10)

The Lord God repented concerning this; “It shall not be, “said the Lord. (RSV Amos 7:3)

The Lord repented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God. (Amos 7:6)

And if it [a nation] does evil in my sight not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it. (Jer 18:10)

And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exod 32:14)

The word of the Lord came to Samuel: I repent that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. (1 Sam 15:11, 35)6

Where should these passages leave us? Do we change our minds about God? Do we change our minds about the Bible, or do we try to explain them away in some way? For they clearly describe God as changing.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Plato, The Republic (P. Shorey, trans.; 2 vols; New York: Putnam, 1930), 1.2.382-83 (p. 197). My translation, in part. For another translation, see H. D. P. Lee, trans., Plato, The Republic (Penguin, 1955), p. 121.

2Shorey, p. 191; Lee, p. 119.


4Here are a few other passages cited in support of the idea that God does not change: Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Ps 33:4, Ps 90:2, Ps 102:25-27, Ps 119:89-90, Isa 40:8, Isa 40:28, 2 Tim 2:13, Heb 13:8, Jas 1:17.

5F. Brown, S. R Driver, C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1968), p. 637. The Hebrew word used in these passages carries the English concept of “be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent, of one’s own doings,” in other words to change.

6Here are a few more passages reflecting the idea that God can and does change: Gen: 6:6-7; 2 Sam 24:16; Ps 106:40-46; Jer 18:8; Jer 26:3, 13, 19; Jer 42:10; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 4:2; Zech 8:14.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Does God know Everything?

The big word describing God’s knowledge is omniscient, all knowing—so the Christian theologians tell us. God must be all knowing because s/he is God. Of course, there is no way to verify that to be the case because we have no access to God except through the human mind. In the human mind God is whatever everyone thinks God is. Another practical way to address the question is to ask if the Bible ever depicts God as not knowing something, or being surprised. The Bible, I was taught, is the basic grammar for Christian living and belief. In my religious tradition the Bible is the “go-to” book for information about God. Hence, the question: does the Bible depict God as unknowing; that is, as lacking knowledge of minutiae of the past and details of the future?

We are fortunate, for many have read through the Bible and gathered together passages that depict God as not knowing things. Here is one of the many collections of God’s lack of knowledge in the Bible.1 The passages noted by the collector are as follows:

Gen 3:9-13: God does not know where Adam is, does not know who told Adam he was naked, does not know that he ate of the tree with forbidden fruit, and does not know why Eve did what she did.

Gen 11:5-7: The Lord had to come down in order to see the Tower of Babel to know what was happening.

Gen 18:20-21: The Lord had to go and see what was going-on at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Gen 22:12: The Lord did not know that Abraham truly feared the Lord until Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.

Isa 5:4: God does not know why his garden yielded wild grapes.

Jer 31:34: God promises to forget the sin of the Israelites.

Jer 32:35: God confesses that he did not know that the Judahites would sacrifice people to Molech.

About these passages the collector, Mr. Stewart, says that they “seem to be passages that teach the limitation of God’s knowledge.” Although he states that he believes in the “inerrancy of Scripture,” Mr. Stewart carefully explains away the plain meaning of the words of the text to bring these passages in line with current conservative theology. In other words, for Mr. Stewart the text does not mean what it plainly says. Here are a few more depictions of God’s lack of knowledge of past and future events:

Gen 6:5-6: God had forgotten the covenant that he had with Israel.

Exod 4:24: God could not find a way to kill Moses.

Exod 33:5: God did not know what to do with the Israelites.

Jer 3:6-7: God did not know that the Israelites would not return to him as an obedient people.

Jer 26:1-3: God did not know whether the Judahites would listen to him or not.

Jonah: 3:1-5, 10: God did not know if the people of Nineveh would repent and had to break his own word and stay the destruction of the city of Nineveh (3:4).

            In all of these passages the writers depict God anthropomorphically; that is, as having the characteristics of a human being. Generally, God is believed to be stronger than us, wiser than us, more gracious than us, etc., yet God is still described in the Bible as limited in knowledge, as are we. The descriptions are not as crass as the depictions of the ancient Gods of Greece and Rome, but the Judeo-Christian God is still described as not knowing certain things. The inevitable conclusion is that the frequently ungodlike descriptions of God in the Bible disqualifies the Bible as the standard for determining the character of God (if God there be).2 The Bible claims that the Judeo-Christian God created human kind in his image (Gen 1:25-27). In reality human beings through time have created their Gods in whatever ways seemed good to them. The character of the Christian God at its worse is based on how he is described in the Bible, and at its finest on the idealistic ideations of the Christian mind.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Blue Letter Bible Ministry: https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_362.cfm

2Here are two more essays about the ungodly descriptions of God in the Bible: Hedrick, “Could God have a Character Flaw?” Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 182-83; Hedrick, “Hérem: God’s Holy War,” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 192-94.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

"God Cannot Lie"-So claimed the Minister

One Sunday morning, during his sermon I heard the minister say: “God cannot Lie.” The purpose of the statement went right over my head and I was stuck, startled, by the statement “God cannot lie.” What about lying for good reasons—little “white lies”? Ministers are encouragers, admonishers, and defenders of the faith. They say what will help motivate the believer’s faith and what is needed to keep the believer walking in the way of faith. They are not critics or thinkers outside the box of faith. In this case, I might have said “God does not lie,” but, now as I think about it, not even that statement quite rings true.

               On the other hand, it is true that there are numerous passages in the Bible depicting God as hating lying and falsehoods. For example, in the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16; Deut 5:20) and on numerous other occasions throughout the Bible (for example, Lev 19:11; Num 23:19; Prov 12:22; Prov 19:5, 9; Rev 22:15). The writer of the Apocalypse even asserts that liars have no right to the tree of life for they are outside the holy city New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2, 10). Liars, on the other hand, are “outside the gates of the city” along with “the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolators and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:15).

               In the Bible the only passage I can recall where God is depicted as deliberately lying is 2 Thess 2:11: “Therefore, God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false.” There are also two other biblical writers who portray God as commissioning lies: 1 Kgs 22:5-23 and 2 Chron 18:4-22.

Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” And the Lord said to him, “by what means?” And he said, “I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.” Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has spoken evil concerning you (1 Kgs 22:21-23).

In the light of these three statements, the minister’s assertion that God does not lie demands modification in some way, or at least the clash with what is generally believed about God’s behavior demands explanation, for in the view of three biblical (inspired?) writers God can lie and apparently has indeed done so. Hence, it seems that those who “trust” the Bible to serve as their principal guide to truth and a guide for living must change their views about the Bible and/or change their view about God’s character.

               The truth is God does what s/he wants. God (if God there be) is neither male nor female but is sui generis; that is, of its own kind—in other words God is unique, and hence unlike human beings. It is also true that God is a grand idea and our ideas of God derive from what we read, from what others tell us, and from the personal testimonies of those who claim to have “experienced” God. The “experiences” people claim to have of God, however, occur only in their minds and from interpretations of their own life experiences. God is not palpable or tangible. God cannot be touched, felt, or handled. Some claim to have “sensed” God, but it is not like sensing the palpable presence of another living creature in a dark room. The “sensing” in the case of God is mental, not physical; it occurs in the mind. In my experience God cannot be seen, although some may claim to have “visions” of God. Such visions do not register on the retina of the eye; they are brought about by mental imagining.

               In regards to God’s visibility an interesting disagreement exists in the Bible as to God’s accessibility by vision. In Exodus 33, the writer vacillates between views as to God’s visibility: in Exod 33:11 The Lord is accustomed to speaking face to face with Moses, as a man speaks with his friend; in Exod 33:20 Moses is told that he cannot see God’s face and live; in Exod 33:23, Moses is only permitted to see God’s back. In the New Testament it is claimed that no one has ever seen God (John 1:18, 6:46; 1 John 4:12).

               In short, God exists in our minds as mental image and God is, as each of us thinks God is.*

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: “God does not exist,” May 17, 2016: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2016/05/god-does-not-exist.html Or in later in revised form: Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Cascade, 2019), 168-70.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Social Spaces, Idols, and Pagan Temples

The earliest followers of Jesus encountered certain social problems that Christians today seldom face. One problem for them was the issue of animals that had been sacrificed in temples to the indigenous deities of the Greco-Roman world. In our world religious sacrifice of animals, construed as cruelty to animals by the courts, is illegal, but not so in the ancient world. Animal sacrifice was ubiquitous. Followers of Jesus were a minority in the ancient world and were engulfed by the customs and practices of these religions. The animal was sacrificed at an altar that was presided over by an image of the God (an idol) whose priest received the offering. Part of the meat was immolated as an offering to the God; the remaining portion was divided among the temple staff and the worshippers (1 Cor 9:13). The priest had the authority to sell part of the temple's share of the sacrifice. In this way meat from the sacrifices made its way to the public sidewalk into the meat markets of ancient cities.1

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul addresses three social locations where the problem of idol meat surfaces for members of the Jesus community in the ancient city of Corinth (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:23-11:1): in the local meat market (1 Cor 10:25); in home meals with unbelievers (1 Cor 10:27-30); in eating meals in an idol's temple (1 Cor 8:10-13; 10:19-20).

Apparently, the Jesus gathering (ekklēsia) at Corinth was divided over the issue of sacrificial meat. Bible translators think they have identified statements in Paul's text where he quotes slogans from the debate originating from one side of the disagreement and are confident enough to place this text in quotation marks and/or also add words not in the text ("as you say") following the phrase in quotations (see 1 Cor 8:4; 10:23, 26). The quoted slogans likely belong to a faction Paul called the "liberated" (8:9; 10:29) as opposed to those the "liberated" regarded as weaker members of the Jesus gathering.

Paul's attempt to resolve the situation is based on the principal that with regard to this matter the liberated should always defer to those the liberated regarded as the weak (8:9-12; Rom 15:1-2). Thus, one should not attend feasts in pagan temples (8:9-13).2 He tells them to buy whatever they need from the meat market without worrying about idols, since idols have no real significance (10:19-20, 25). If one is invited to the home of a non-believer, one can eat whatever one wants without raising questions of conscience. If others raise objections to the idol meat, then "do not eat it out of consideration for the one who informed you" (10:27-30).3 His rationale is that while the liberated may know that idols are nothing to be feared, others may not have that knowledge (8:7). Paul concludes that if food is a problem for a fellow believer, he would never eat meat again (8:13).

Eating idol meat may not be a modern problem, but the principle of deference to the weaker believer will apply to many modern situations (compare Rom 14:13-15:2). Paul actually alludes to another ancient practice that can also be a modern problem: drinking wine (Rom 14:21). He does not say drinking wine to excess; he only suggests that drinking wine is not right if it causes a fellow believer to stumble. He also seems to extend this principle to the "neighbor" who is not part of the community of believers (1 Cor 10:24, 31-33; Rom 15:1-2).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For a brief description of the sacrifices, see the discussion in Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), 188-92.

2Note, however, Paul seems to stop short of absolutely forbidding attending feasts in pagan temples, and leaves it to the individual to decide. Nevertheless, Paul's intent seems clear enough. From my reading of the text, it was a difficult situation for Paul. He basically agreed with the liberated faction that idols were nothing (1 Cor 8:1-4; 10:19-20), so to enforce his position that the liberated should not eat in pagan temples, Paul could offer his principle of concern for the weaker members of the Jesus gathering at Corinth (1 Cor 8:9) and his own example of never eating meat if it caused the weaker person to stumble in faith (1 Cor 8:13). His argument about pagan sacrifices being offered to demons (1 Cor10:20-21) seems more like a slur. I doubt that people who offered sacrifices in pagan temples thought they were sacrificing to demons. These two verses (1 Cor10:20-21) constitute the only mention of demons in the Pauline letters.

31 Cor 10:29b is a problem for the sense of the text. The Revised Standard Version puts verses 10:28-29a in parentheses, which in effect makes verse 10:29b a continuation of 10:27 and makes verses 28-29a a digression. Thinking of the text in this way retains the sense of the passage, for otherwise 10:29b contradicts 10:28-29a. See also Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning (Polebridge, 2010), 94, where verses 28-29a are treated as a digression and placed in parentheses.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Lowly Punctuation Mark in the New Testament

Something to which we pay little attention when we read the New Testament are the punctuation marks in the text. In a sense, we take them for granted. The truth is that in the earliest extant Greek manuscripts of New Testament, texts only received a few marks by their first inscribers. Originally punctuation appeared in a text “as an aid in reading, especially in reading aloud, by marking the various resting-places for the voice.”1 Texts in antiquity were read audibly and not silently.  The words of the sentences were not separated, but sentences were written in a continuous string of letters. The result of this lack of standardization in Greek texts of the New Testament is that “modern editors are compelled to provide their own punctuation and hence often their own interpretation. The latter is very definitely the case, e.g. when a mark of interrogation occurs (found in [manuscripts of the ninth century] AD at the earliest).”2

            What this means in a practical sense is that punctuation in translations of the Bible is due to the interpretation of modern editors of a text. Editing a Greek text for use by readers or translators means separating the string of letters of a line of text into specific words, correcting the ancient scribes’ errors, and deciding how the text should be punctuated. These procedures constitute an initial interpretation of a text. Translators of a text into modern languages usually work from such a “critical Greek text” that has already undergone these interpretative procedures.

            It is not uncommon that editors and translators of a text will themselves make errors in their interpretation of the text, or at the very least disagree in what should appear in critical editions of Greek texts and their translations. Editors are, after all, human and prone to error, and that is why we have different editions of critical texts and translations.3

            Here are two examples showing that what has been construed as interrogative sentences in the Gospel of John make good sense in the context as statements. My two examples demonstrate that editors of a text can come to different conclusions about a question mark. In John 14:2 a sentence that is construed as a question by one translation is construed in another as a statement:

If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (New Revised Standard Version).

If it were not so, I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you. (The Revised English Bible).

The Nestle-Aland 28th edition of the critical Greek text punctuates the sentence with a question mark.

            Here is the second example. In John 20:29 a sentence that is construed by one translation as a question is construed in another as a statement:

Have you believed because you have seen me? (New Revised Standard Version).

Because you have seen me, you have found faith. (The Revised English Bible).

The Nestle-Aland 28th edition of the critical Greek text punctuates the sentence with a question mark.

            What is the difference between a statement and a question? Basically, a statement is the expression of an idea. A question is the expression of uncertainty and/or request for information. Hence in John 20:29 the paper character of Jesus affirms that the basis for Thomas’ faith is seeing the resurrected Christ (REB). In the NRSV, on the other hand, the character Jesus is unsure why Thomas believes. In the REB version of John 14:2 the character Jesus appears to admit an error on his part; that is, he should have told them he was going to prepare a place for them, but failed to do so. In the NRSV, on the other hand, Thomas finds faith precisely because he has seen the risen Jesus, which Jesus notes is not true of everyone.

One finds this same disagreement between construing the text as a question and a statement between the translators of the REB and the NRSV in John 6:42. I have also found a number of other places in John’s text where it appears to me that the sentence arguably works just as well as a question or as an affirmative statement: John 7:26, 9:40; 11:8, 16:19, 19:10.

            I do not know how familiar readers of the New Testament are with the above information. The information, however, should make a difference to them. What is the significance of this ambiguity in the Greek text of the gospel of John of which the translators of the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version were surely aware? In the first place the problem of ambiguity lies with the extant Greek texts. They are ambiguous enough that they can reasonably be read at some points in two different ways by readers of ancient Greek. In the second place it is a virtual certainty that the original Greek text of the gospel of John would not have been any different because scribal practices were similar. That is to say, the author’s original hand-written copy is likewise flawed. Readers of the author’s copy would have faced the same ambiguity.

            The Bible is extolled as divinely inspired by Christian believers, but many of its passages (like Psalm 23 and 1 Corinthians 13) are also regarded as inspired and inspiring as is all exceptional literature. In the end the biblical text that reaches the hands of the reading public is due as much to human inspiration, ability, skill, and flaws as all literature is.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1George B. Winer, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament (7th ed. Enlarged and improved by Gottlieb Lϋnemann; Draper, 1892), 55-56.

2Blass, Debrunner, Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago, 1961), 10. E. M. Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912), 60; both of these authors say that the question mark appears in the 8th or 9th century, common era.

3The current critical Greek text in use by Western scholars is the so-called Nestle-Aland Critical text: “Novum Testamentum Graece.” Based on the work of Eberhard and Erwin Nestle. Edited by Barbara and Kurt Aland, et al. We are currently in the 28th Revised Edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece.