Mess of Pottage Blog

Luke's "Pro" Blog


One of the students in my preaching class in seminary used to preach a sermon based on a sticky note in his Bible. I was preaching from a written manuscript. Over time, I replaced the manuscript with a detailed outline, then a smaller outline. And now I have arrived at the point where my colleague was 10 years ago:


(A recording of the sermon is available online. Start at the church website and follow the links.)

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The Bible as an Enjoyable Reading Experience

The Bible as an enjoyable reading experience — does that sound wonderful to you? Or maybe even ‘unimaginable?’ Watch this video:

Bibliotheca Kickstarter from Good. Honest. on Vimeo.

I’m not enthusiastic about doing so much work on the reading experience while using an older translation. The ASV, for example, predates the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Still, it’s much better than the KJV, and the archaic word forms are being eliminated, so it’s not bad.

What do you think? Should the Bible be enjoyable to read, as well as practical to study?

(I was originally alerted to this project by Jason Morehead, via Tim Chailles.)

(Cross-posted from Pastor Luke’s blog at JLP.)

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Accordance Auto Context

As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of the Accordance 10 “auto context” slider, but YMMV. Accordance publishes an email newsletter (not repurposed on their web site, apparently, or I’d link to it) describing the use of the context slider. In the article they explain some of the logic that is supposed to make the “auto context” feature intelligent:

  • Romans 10:1: For this verse search, auto-context will set the Context slider to All. This is because many people use the top search bar as a navigational tool, and when searching for an individual verse, users often intend this to be a starting point for further study.
  • Romans 10:1-5: For this verse search, auto-context will set the Context slider to 0. Since you set a specific range of verses, auto-context assumes you only want to see the versers in that range.
  • Love: For this word search (and all others), auto-context will set the Context slider to 0. This allows you to quickly scan through your search results and add context as desired.
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Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I noted that on Facebook earlier today, and referenced Leviticus 25:10, the verse cited on the Liberty Bell: “you shall … proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” That verse seems appropriate, since the Emancipation Proclamation represents movement of the nation toward the fulfillment of its long-held aspirations.

But someone responded to me with this: “So which verse should bear more weight, the one you quote [or] Lev 25:44-46?” Since very few of us have Leviticus committed to memory, those verses say:

Regarding male or female slaves that you are allowed to have: You can buy a male or a female slave from the nations that are around you. You can also buy them from the foreign guests who live with you and from their extended families that are with you, who were born in your land. These can belong to you as property. You can pass them on to your children as inheritance that they can own as permanent property. You can make these people work as slaves, but you must not rule harshly over your own people, the Israelites.

You see the point: the Bible says freedom but it also says slavery. The Bible is a terrible book and we’d all be better off if people abandoned those primitive superstitions and became humanists like Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, and Hitler.

Well. I thought the Emancipation Proclamation was a good thing, but apparently its real value is how it underscores the hypocrisy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But just because a question is asked in bad faith doesn’t mean it can’t be answered. Here’s my response:

[Name], which do you think? Abraham Lincoln evidently saw 25:10 as trumping 25:44-46, but if you’re more clever than him, that’s your prerogative.

I’ve observed how modern critics pick out the verses in the Bible that support slavery and say, “Gotcha! Your religion is evil.” Then they go buy a printer from a company that just announced 5000 layoffs, or a company that switched its offshore manufacturing from Mexico to China. I prefer freedom to slavery, and I think God does too, but freedom isn’t a panacea.

My impression is that the Bible’s instructions about slavery tend to place limits on an existing institution, kind of like the Bill of Rights. For example, the verses you cite say you may have slaves but only from the gentiles, not from your own people. In the following verses, it says that gentiles can enslave your relatives but you may not. This institution exists among the gentiles, it says, and you may participate in it only insofar as you deal with them, you may not let it make inroads among your own community.

You can see that glass as half-full or half-empty. Would it be better to reform the gentiles too? How would you do that without imposing your religion on them?

Since we’re analyzing Leviticus 25, what did you make of 25:3-4, rest for the land? Or Leviticus 25:13, returning property to people who lost it? Or Lev 25:14, the prohibition against cheating people? Or Lev 25:25, the requirement that people help out their relatives (rather than abandoning them to the mercy of society at large)?

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Socialist Jesus

I sometimes wonder about people who write stuff like this:

As near as we can tell, Jesus would advocate a tax rate somewhere between 50% (in the vein of “If you have two coats, give one to the man who has none”) and 100% (if you want to get into heaven, be poor).

What I wonder is if they’re truly that ignorant, or if they know enough to to be consciously and deliberately twisting the Christian message.

Where do we start? I suppose the first clause, advocating a 50% tax rate, since it is a direct quotation of Luke 3:11. That’s where the problems begin, though, because it’s not Jesus who’s talking! This quote is from Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Here is what John said in context:

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Given vv. 12–13, it would be amusing to see verse 11 used to justify arbitrary taxation — does it matter whether the tax collectors are free-lancers or if they have the apparatus of government on their side? and if so, why? — it would be amusing, except that it does so much damage to the economy.

I had a guy the other night tell me that prosperity shouldn’t be the goal of the government. Maybe he might feel differently about that if he’d spent the last few months looking for a job, his house was underwater, and his marriage was coming apart because he and his wife argue about money all the time.

Then there’s the other clause, arguing for a 100% tax rate. Notice that it doesn’t have any quote marks. That’s because it’s not a quote. What it seems to be is a bungled citation of Mark 10:17-22:

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” … 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

1) Inheriting “eternal life” isn’t “getting into heaven.” I can’t spare the time to demonstrate this, so you can believe me or not.

2) Jesus looks at him. The left can’t do this. They see everyone as a member of a class—the rich or the poor, the 1% or the 99%—but never as an individual.

3) Jesus loves him. The people writing these sad, sorry little articles don’t seem to love anyone, and certainly not people who are rich. Read some of their tweets.

4) Jesus says this rich young ruler lacks something. Jesus wants to rectify that; he wants to give him something. (I suppose you could argue that Jesus wants to sell him something, or trade for it, but Jesus sends the money elsewhere, and besides, 2000 years of Christian theology have insisted we receive salvation and new life as a free gift.) Leftists think they’re Robin Hoods: they want to redistribute wealth by taking it from the rich and giving it to the poor. The rich have too much already; they sure don’t need anything else!

5) Jesus tells him to give the money to the poor. Not to the emperor. (Not here, that is—more about rendering to Caesar in a moment.) Jesus doesn’t explain his reasoning. Maybe he wants the rich young ruler to do what he did: to look at someone and love them, to see them as people and not as causes. Perhaps he wants to be sure the money gets to the poor, rather than being diverted to (say) public-sector unions and other cronies of the elite.

6) Jesus tells him to follow him. Is the left seriously proposing that the government should not only take people’s money from them, but make them follow Jesus too? If not, why only quote the part about giving your money away?

7) Jesus lets the man decide what to do. Is the left planning to make taxing the rich optional? Will the 100% rate be a check-off box like contributing to public financing of elections? Of course not.

8) Despite what the writer says, Jesus never tells the man to “be poor.” Far from it, he says by following him, this fellow will have riches in heaven. If I were psychoanalyzing the left, I would see this statement as projection. It has become transparently obvious that the left’s policies make people poor; the best approach, then, is to suggest that Jesus wants people to be that way.

In fact, Jesus had all kinds of opportunities to advocate a tax rate, and never did. Once, however, he had to bail out a disciple who erroneously assumed that Jesus was okay with paying taxes:

27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Make what you will of that, but it certainly isn’t a call for higher taxes!

Finally, Jesus once told some people to “render unto Caesar.”

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. …

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Evil people try to trap Jesus, and he escapes. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the tax power. But it’s about the best you can do if you want to make him an advocate for big government and leveling.

The real question about the Christian left is this: why is it bad for the Christian right to invoke faith in opposing abortion or premarital sex but good for the left to invoke faith in supporting ever-increasing government indebtedness? What right do bleeding hearts have to impose their morality on other people’s bank accounts, and what principle distinguishes that right from the perceived duty of wing nuts to impose their morality on other people’s bedrooms?

But I see this kind of crap on Facebook all the time, so it must really work, at least for people who are looking to have their politics validated.

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Tools for Bible study

I was puzzled about a verse I read this morning, and decided to write about it. I also thought it might be useful to share here some of the tools that are available for doing Bible study.

We live in the golden age of amateur Bible scholarship. Thanks to sites like Bible Gateway and Bible.CC, if you have an internet connection, you can compare dozens of translations with the click of a mouse. My church uses the NRSV, which is available online, but not in as many places as the ESV, which I find is a pretty reasonable substitute.

Sometimes, a quick comparison only leads to more questions about which translation “got it right.” There are two ways to answer that kind of question. First, you could ask an expert. If you don’t know any experts personally, you could go read one of their books instead. Those are called commentaries.

The problem with commentaries is that there’s almost always another scholar who takes a contrary position, and the ones who get their commentaries published are usually able to construct a pretty compelling argument. (Stop and consider: the people who make these competing translations are all experts, and the whole problem is that they don’t agree on how to translate something.) So, of the reading of commentaries there is no end: you have to keep reading until you find one that supports your presuppositions. (I kid.)

If the topic is about something important — grace vs. works, for example — you really do need to ask an expert. But a lot of the time, you just want make sure you’re not leaning too hard on what might be an idiosyncratic translation, or — especially with older translations like KJV — a word whose meaning has evolved over the years.

In those situations you can do a word search to see what the word appears to mean in other places where it appears. It’s best to search by the word used in the original biblical language, because translations don’t always translate one word uniformly, because it’s a poor word that has only one shade of meaning. (The word for “angel” is also the word for “messenger,” but not every messenger has wings and a halo. The word for “heaven” can be translated as “sky” and “air,” depending on the context. And so forth.)

Fortunately, you don’t have to know the biblical languages to do this kind of “casual” search. You can look the underlying words in Strong’s Concordance, which assigns each one a unique number.

I was looking for a word (sometimes translated “justice” or “what is right”) in Proverbs 28:5. The Blue Letter Bible has tagged Bibles that let you see the Strong’s number for each word. (It offers both the KJV and NASB, and, while I’m not a fan of either, the NASB at least offers somewhat more modern English usage.)

With the tagged verse in front of me, it was easy enough to pick my word. As it happens, what I wanted was a Hebrew word numbered 4941.

Clicking on 4941 brought me not only a definition but a list of search results showing me all the places the word appeared. There were 421 appearances all through the Hebrew scriptures, so I concentrated my search in the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes).

My purpose in this article is to describe how I did my Bible study, rather than to tell you what it taught me. That’s for another article.

When I first began to read the Bible 20 years ago, I was frustrated by all the page-flipping. Today, you can flip through not just one translation but any number of them, as easily as clicking a mouse.

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Being less Biblical

I liked this point by Don Miller in his blog post “Being Less ‘Biblical’ and more ‘like the Bible.'”

Even Christ’s biographers depict Him without sparing us His humanity. He gets angry, He gets annoyed, He is hard to understand (and indeed hard to follow) and while He seems to love the world, He’s as alien as E.T., pointing always toward the heavens rambling about going home. It’s brilliant stuff when you stop reading it to figure out if you’re right or wrong about something. It’s life-changing, actually, the way your life gets changed by a friend over time.

I don’t do it enough, but I’m always rewarded when I just read the gospels. (Or really, any of the Scriptures, but it’s especially true in the gospels, as you read about Jesus.) Not to find that passage where he says this or that, or where it teaches us about this thing or another. Just to read the story and enjoy it.

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Mistakes in the Bible

The blog “God Didn’t Say That” has a useful discussion of three types of errors that occur in Biblical manuscripts.

We’re used to mass-produced Bibles printed by machines, so we forget the type of errors that are found in handwritten manuscripts. (Try, someday, to copy a page from the Bible by hand, and when you’re done, count the errors you made. Then take a moment to give thanks you only have to copy a single page.)

Generally speaking, these errors aren’t all that significant, because they occur in a few manuscripts (duplicates of an ancestral manuscript where the error first occurred) but not in others. The article is interesting, though, because it describes the different types of errors and discusses the different approaches that translators use to deal with them.

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Bible Translations Keep Coming

This story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel looks at two freshly-revised translations (the NAB and the NIV) and does a fair job of describing some of the issues involved in translating (or updating a translation of) the Bible. Consider, for example, the discussions that might have led to these decisions:

In the Catholic Bible, for example, “booty” becomes “spoils of war” and “cereal ” is now “grain.” The NIV substitutes “foreigner” for “alien” and, to describe those crucified alongside Christ, “rebels” instead of “robbers.”

Those word choices remind me how Bruce Metzger mentioned somewhere that the NRSV, which updated the 1950’s-era RSV, changed Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 11:25 from “I was stoned” to “I received a stoning.”

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Lost and Found in Translation

N.T. Wright, a distinguished New Testament scholar, has an interesting article about the issues involved in translating the Bible. Well worth your time.

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