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.