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Avoid Every Appearance of Evil

When Christian leaders talk about how to live a godly life, they eventually turn to the gray areas of those things that are right for some but wrong for others. You know the list: drinking, smoking, watching R rated movies, playing cards, dancing, using colorful language, listening to Country-Western music (OK that last one is not a gray area; it should be taboo for everyone), etc. That’s the short list. And the way instruction on such matters goes is all too often along these lines: First, our freedoms in Christ are articulated, clearly stated, appreciated. Next come the qualifiers: but don’t exercise your freedom in Christ, if it will make someone uncomfortable, cause someone to judge you, is not entirely loving, etc. The situation would be bad enough, if it just ended there. By the time all the qualifications are stated, the freedoms that we allegedly have are almost all stripped away. Paralysis begins to set in. But the coup de grace comes with a single verse from 1 Thessalonians, frequently utilized as a weapon against all those who enjoy their lives in Christ: But even if what you do is loving, makes no one uncomfortable, doesn’t cause anyone to judge you, remember that you are responsible to avoid every appearance of evil. So, when in doubt, don’t do it!

That’s how the verse reads in the KJV: Avoid every appearance of evil. It’s 1 Thess 5.22 and it puts a damper on everything. Wait a minute. Does it really mean this? Does it really mean that even if something looks like it’s evil to some, we can’t enjoy it? Hardly.

The Greek text really should be translated, abstain from every form of evil. There is a genuine correspondence between form and the state of being evil: that is, stay away from evil things. But the reason that form (or, in the KJV, appearance) was used is because Paul is speaking about false doctrine. This verse, in fact, was more often attributed to Jesus than to Paul in the early church, suggesting that Paul got this line from the Lord and that it was one of the sayings which for some reason didn’t make it into the gospels, but was nevertheless an authentic saying of Jesus. It was used with literal reference to coins. Thus, to abstain from every form of evil was to avoid counterfeit teaching. Further, in the context, it seems clear that Paul is speaking about false teaching. Verses 19-22 read as follows:

Do not quench the Spirit;
Do not despise prophecies;
But examine all things: cling to the good, abstain from every form of evil.

In context, Paul is saying that false teaching should be avoided, but true teaching should be what believers follow. They shouldn’t be duped, shouldn’t become gullible, but must test prophets and see whether they are from the Lord. They need to examine all these teachings and cling to the good and throw out the bad.

If we look at the broader context of the New Testament as a whole, we see that Paul was certainly not speaking about avoiding every appearance of evil in 1 Thessalonians 5. His own mission was governed by the mantra, I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some (1 Cor 9.22).

Further, consider the life of Jesus. The distinct impression one gets from the gospels is that Jesus simply did not have the same scruples about his associations that the religious leaders of the day had. They avoided the appearance of evil at all costs; Jesus seems to have had almost the opposite approach to life and ministry (see, e.g., Luke 7:39). Even his disciples had been oppressed by all the rules and traditions of men. However, Jesus freed them from such nonsense. In Matt. 15, the Pharisees were stunned that Jesus’ disciples did not perform the Jewish hand-washing ritual before they ate. They hammered on the disciples, and on Jesus, for not obeying the oral commandments. Jesus did not say, “Sorry, boys. I didn’t mean to cause offense. It won’t happen again.” Instead, he very boldly pointed out that these religious leaders had exchanged the laws of God for their own self-made rules. He called them hypocrites who had no heart for God. The most remarkable verse in this whole pericope is seen in verse 12: Jesus’ disciples came to their Master and said, “Did you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?” Didn’t they know that offending the Pharisees was part of Jesus’ job description!

To wield 1 Thess 5.22 as a weapon to restrict a believer’s personal freedom is against the general tenor of the New Testament and of the Lord’s life in particular. Ironically, to avoid every appearance of evil is far more in keeping with the Pharisees’ model of righteousness than with Jesus’! I like John Piper’s notion of Christian hedonism for it falls in line with the Westminster Confession’s statement that our prime objective is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Gee, maybe that’s what the Christian faith is all about? What a novel concept!

A Bibliology Grounded in Christology

The center of all theology, of the entirety of the Christian faith, is Christ himself. The Christ-event—in particular his death and resurrection—is the center of time: everything before it leads up to it; everything after it is shaped by it. If Christ were not God in the flesh, he would not have been raised from the dead. And if he were not raised from the dead, none of us would have any hope. My theology grows out from Christ, is based on Christ, and focuses on Christ.

Years ago, I would have naïvely believed that all Christians could give their hearty amens to the previous paragraph. This is no longer the case; perhaps it never was. There are many whose starting point and foundation for Christian theology is bibliology. They begin with the assumption that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I can understand that. Starting one’s doctrinal statement with the Bible gives one assurances that the primary source of theology, the scriptures, is both true and trustworthy. I don’t start there, however. I have come to believe that the incarnation is both more central than inspiration and provides a methodological imperative for historical investigation of the claims of the Bible.

Sometimes the reason why doctrinal statements begin with scripture is because the framers believe that without an inerrant Bible we can’t know anything about Jesus Christ. They often ask the question, “How can we be sure that anything in the Bible is true? How can we be sure that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, or even that he existed, if the Bible is not inerrant?”

Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches to Inerrancy

My response to the above question is twofold. First, before the New Testament was written, how did people come to faith in Christ? To assume that having a complete Bible is necessary before we can know anything about Christ is both anachronistic and counterproductive. Our epistemology has to wrestle with the spread of the gospel before the Gospels were penned. The very fact that it spread so fast—even though the apostles were not always regarded highly—is strong testimony both to the work of the Spirit and to the historical evidence that the eyewitnesses affirmed.

Second, we can know about Christ because the Bible is a historical document. (Even if one has a very low regard for the Bible’s historicity, he or she has to admit that quite a bit of it is historically accurate.) If we demand inerrancy of the Bible before we can believe that any of it is true, what are we to say about other ancient historical documents? We don’t demand that they be inerrant, yet no evangelical would be totally skeptical about all of ancient history. Why put the Bible in a different category before we can believe it at all? As one scholar wisely articulated many years ago, we treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book. Continue Reading →

The Chester Beatty Papyri at CSNTM!

The Chester Beatty papyri, published in the 1930s and 1950s, are some of the oldest and most important biblical manuscripts known to exist. Housed at the Chester Beatty Library (CBL) in Dublin, they have attracted countless visitors every year. It is safe to say that the only Greek biblical manuscripts that might receive more visitors are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, both on display at the British Library.

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is pleased to announce that a six-person team, in a four-week expedition during July–August 2013, digitized all the Greek biblical papyri at the Chester Beatty Library. The CBL has granted permission to CSNTM to post the images on their website (www.csntm.org), which will happen before the end of the year.

The New Testament papyri at the CBL include the oldest manuscript of Paul’s letters (dated c. AD 200), the oldest manuscript of Mark’s Gospel and portions of the other Gospels and Acts (third century), and the oldest manuscript of Revelation (third century). One or two of the Old Testament papyri are as old as the second century AD.

Using state-of-the-art digital equipment, CSNTM photographed each manuscript against white and black backgrounds. The result was stunning. Each image is over 120 megabytes. The photographs reveal some text that has not been seen before.

Besides the papyri, CSNTM also digitized all of the Greek New Testament manuscripts at the CBL as well as several others, including some early apocryphal texts. The total number of images came to more than 5100.

CSNTM is grateful to the CBL for the privilege of digitizing these priceless treasures. The staff were extremely competent and a joy to work with. Kudos to Dr. Fionnuala Croke, Director of CBL, for such a superb staff! This kind of collaboration is needed both for the preservation of biblical manuscripts and their accessibility by scholars.

 

Daniel B. Wallace, PhD

Executive Director

Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Fifteen More Myths about Bible Translation

1. Perhaps the number one myth about Bible translation is that a word-for-word translation is the best kind. Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. Yet, ironically, even some biblical scholars who should know better continue to tout word-for-word translations as though they were the best. Perhaps the most word-for-word translation of the Bible in English is Wycliffe’s, done in the 1380s. Although translated from the Latin Vulgate, it was a slavishly literal translation to that text. And precisely because of this, it was hardly English.

2. Similar to the first point is that a literal translation is the best version. In fact, this is sometimes just a spin on the first notion. For example, the Greek New Testament has about 138,000–140,000 words, depending on which edition one is using. But no English translation has this few. Here are some examples:

RSV           173,293

NIV           175,037

ESV           175,599

NIV 2011   176,122

TNIV        176,267

NRSV       176,417

REB          176,705

NKJV      177,980

NET         178,929

RV           179,873

ASV        180,056

KJV        180,565

NASB 95   182,446

NASB      184,062

NLT, 2nd ed  186,596

TEV         192,784

It’s no surprise that the TEV and NLT have the most words, since these are both paraphrases. But the translations perceived to be more literal are often near the bottom of this list (that is, farther away from the Greek NT word-count). These include the KJV (#12), ASV (#11), NASB (#14), NASB 95 (#13), and RV (#10). Indeed, when the RV came out (1881), one of its stated goals was to be quite literal and the translators were consciously trying to be much more literal than the KJV.

Some translations of the New Testament into other languages:

Modern Hebrew NT             111,154

Vulgate                                    125,720

Italian La Sacra Bibbia      163,870

Luther                                     169,536

French Novelle Version2   184,449

La Sainte Bible (Geneve)    185,859

3. The King James Version is a literal translation. The preface to the KJV actually claims otherwise. For example, they explicitly said that they did not translate the same word in the original the same way in the English but did attempt to capture the sense of the original each time: “An other thing we thinke good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men some where, have beene as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not varie from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there bee some wordes that bee not of the same sense every where) we were especially carefull, and made a conscience, according to our duetie.” Continue Reading →

Five Myths About Bible Translation

There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in the translation,” is clearly illustrated in this instance. In Italian the two words are virtually identical, both in spelling and pronunciation. They thus involve a play on words. But when translated into other languages, the word-play vanishes. The meaning, on one level, is the same, but on another level it is quite different. Precisely because it is no longer a word-play, the translation doesn’t linger in the mind as much as it does in Italian. There’s always something lost in translation. It’s like saying in French, “don’t eat the fish; it’s poison.” The word ‘fish’ in French is poisson, while the word ‘poison’ is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.

But how much is lost? Here I want to explore five more myths about Bible translation.

Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.

This myth involves a naïve understanding of what Bible translators actually did. It’s as if once they translated the text, they destroyed their exemplar! Sometimes folks think that translators who were following a tradition (such as the KJV and its descendants, the RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NKJB, NRSV, and ESV) really did not translate at all but just tweaked the English. Or that somehow the manuscripts that the translators used are now lost entirely.

The reality is that we have almost no record of Christians destroying biblical manuscripts throughout the entire history of the Church. And those who translated in a tradition both examined the English and the original tongues. Decent scholars improved on the text as they compared notes and manuscripts. Finally, we still have almost all of the manuscripts that earlier English translators used. And we have many, many more as well. The KJV New Testament, for example, was essentially based on seven Greek manuscripts, dating no earlier than the eleventh century. Today we have about 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, including those that the KJV translators used. And they date as early as the second century. So, as time goes on, we are actually getting closer to the originals, not farther away.

Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Continue Reading →

Sinners in the Hands of a Wishy-Washy God?

Two days before Good Friday, Al Hsu posted a provocative piece in the online version of Christianity Today entitled, “He’s Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus”.  Hsu’s article has gone viral among evangelical Christians. He opens his essay by asking the following questions:

“Is God the kind of God that turns his back on his Son?” “Does God abandon those who cry out to him?” “How could God forsake the perfect God-man, the only one who has ever served him perfectly?” “Because if Jesus was truly forsaken by God, what’s preventing God from forsaking any of us?” “How could we ever trust him to be good?”

Hsu spent the rest of the article answering these questions, but his answers may surprise you: “God did not turn his back on his Son.” “He did not forsake the perfect God-man.”  “He did not pour his wrath out on Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross.”

Hsu’s argument focuses heavily on cultural perceptions of the Christian faith and how our global culture has shifted in recent years. Truth claims about Christianity have become passé, pragmatic claims have proved insufficient to deal with suffering that marks virtually everyone’s experience, and questions related to authenticity—spawned mostly by postmodernism—have proved inadequate. The question that is foremost in today’s world is whether the Christian faith is good.

Hsu’s answer to these questions is that the old Reformed view of the cross looks too much like child abuse; and, if the Father turned his back on Jesus, then the Trinity is broken. And this understanding of the gospel—the view held by Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Barth, and a host of Protestant theologians for five hundred years—is bad. And if bad, then it is also false. 

Hsu then focuses on the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He points out that the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cry, and that for us to see it as God turning his back on Jesus is to read into the text. Hsu makes the argument that when the ancients quoted a verse, they meant the whole passage in which it was found to be understood. In the case of Psalm 22, that would mean that we should reflect on the whole psalm to grasp Jesus’ meaning. It is true that, often, the context from which a verse was quoted was in view, but not always. Hsu uses Luke 4.18–19 as proof, where Jesus reads Isaiah 61.1–2a in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Ironically, this is one of the clearest passages to demonstrate that the whole context of the Old Testament text was not in view. The Lord stopped short of reading the rest of Isa 61.2 (“the day when our God will seek vengeance, to console all who mourn” [NET]), which most interpret as referring to the Second Coming of Christ. In other words, Jesus stopped short of quoting the whole verse because he wanted his hearers to understand that only the first part was fulfilled in his first coming.

Hsu camps on the whole of Psalm 22 as what Jesus meant when he quoted the first verse from the cross. But in doing so, Hsu makes certain assumptions that are questionable. First, although he claims that the whole psalm is in view, he seems to be saying that the whole psalm—except verse 1–is in view: “Here is direct refutation of the notion that the Father turned his face away from the Son”; “Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He’s declaring the opposite. He’s saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.” In other words, Hsu argues that Psalm 22.1 should be understood to mean that God only seemed to abandon his Son. However, if God did not abandon him, there are a host of verses in this psalm that would serve Jesus’ purposes better (e.g., Ps 22.24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him”).  

If Jesus didn’t die in our place, if he didn’t receive the full force of God’s wrath against sin, then what did he accomplish on the cross? For Hsu, the point of the cross was for us to know that we are not alone in our suffering. And he is bold enough to say, “there is nothing in Scripture that says that the Father rejected the Son.” This might come as quite a shock to the majority of Christians who have held otherwise throughout twenty centuries.

As Hsu admitted, the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cross. We must turn elsewhere to understand its full import. The Gospels tell us the what.  The New Testament letters, especially those by Paul, tell us the why of the cross.  

Paul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he was white hot at Christians’ claims. They had the audacity to claim that God had blessed Jesus the Nazarene by raising him from the dead. Paul understood the implications, if this were true: If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then the Old Testament—the only Bible in existence at that time—was no longer infallible; and, Paul couldn’t have that. The key text that drove his theology was Deuteronomy 21.23, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (NIV). For Paul, it was impossible that God could have blessed Jesus by raising him from the dead, because he had cursed him by hanging him on a tree. Therefore, when the apostles began to proclaim that God had raised Jesus from the dead, Paul had to act. However, he was confronted by the ascended Lord from heaven on that dusty road to Damascus, and then confronted with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: The Bible was infallible, yet God had raised Jesus from the dead. Paul spent the next three years alone in Arabia, unraveling this paradox. He must have spent that time studying the Bible and connecting the dots. “How could I have missed this?” he must have thought. In any case, Paul emerged with a clear understanding of the gospel: Jesus Christ died in our place, suffering under the wrath of God, to pay for our sins. Thus, his resurrection from the dead was the proof that God accepted his payment on our behalf. Continue Reading →

Is the Muslim My Neighbor?

I am conflicted. It was Muslim terrorists who flew commercial planes into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon, killing 3000 people. It was Muslim terrorists who did another coordinated attack in eight different locations in Mumbai, India in 2008, killing 173 people and injuring at least 327. It was Muslim terrorists who kidnapped and brutally murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Muslim snipers killed ten people in the Washington DC area in 2002. It was Muslim suicide bombers who have viciously attacked high population sites in Israel too many times to count (fifty times in 2002 alone). Muslim terrorists started a gunfight in Mogadishu, Somalia, killing at least 17. Muslim suicide bombers killed 27 and injured 65 in Hanju, Pakistan in 2009. A Muslim extremist killed two American soldiers in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2009. Later that year a Muslim fundamentalist—who was at the time a major in the United States Army—killed 13 and injured 30 at Ft. Hood in Killeen, Texas. As many as 150 people were killed by Muslim terrorists in Damaturu, Nigeria, in 2011.

And it was Muslim suicide bombers and other terrorists who have repeatedly killed Americans, Afghanis, and Iraqis since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. And the death toll continues to rise. The casualty list from the despicable and cowardly actions of these terrorists goes on page after page. Muslim terrorists have been responsible for thousands of deaths and incalculable suffering in Pakistan, India, Egypt, Somalia, Qatar, Indonesia, Jordan, Philippines, China, Mali, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Algeria, Libya, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Sweden, Denmark, France, England, Israel, and the United States.

And yet I am conflicted. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to do good to those who harm us [most of the following translations are from the NET Bible]: “Do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well” (Matt 5.39). “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5.44). “If you do not forgive others, your heavenly Father will not forgive you your sins” (Matt 6.15). “In all that you do, treat others as you would want them to treat you” (Matt 7.12). “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject you as evil on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6.22). “All who take hold of the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26.52). Continue Reading →

Ehrman vs Wallace: Round Three

On Wednesday, February 1, 2012, I debated Bart Ehrman on his home turf at UNC Chapel Hill. The topic: Is the original New Testament lost? The format was a 30-minute opener from each of us (Bart, then me), followed by two rounds of 5-minute responses to the other man. Then, questions from the floor and, finally, a one-minute closing statementfrom each of us. Miles O’Neill was the moderator and the debate was sponsored by the Ehrman Project, which Miles heads up. Over 1000 people were in attendance.

Bart Ehrman is well known as a superb debater. He was on a national championship debate team in high school and has been debating ever since. This was my fifth everdebate—three now with Bart. I still have a lot to learn about debate technique. But in all three of my debates with Bart I recognized that they would either be recorded or turned into a book (the first one is now available as The Reliability of the New Testament: A Dialogue between Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace (Fortress Press, 2011). The second debate—the largest such debate in history with over 1400 people in attendance—was professionally filmed and edited and is available at www.csntm.org as a DVD for a modest priceI was as concerned for those who would be able to study the arguments in some detail as I was for those who attended each debate. Therefore, I geared my responses to those who would study these issues later on.

Andreas Köstenberger, an erudite professor at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, attended the debate and wrote up a review of it. You can access that here. Köstenberger offered a critique more on me than on the debate, and on the debate tactics of each of us more than on the substance of what was said. My response to him has been posted as a comment on his blogpost.

For P&P readers, I would like to summarize the debate from my perspective. If you attended the debate, your comments are especially welcome (but of course so arecomments by others!).

Bart’s opener focused on three questions:

  1. What do we mean by original text?
  2. Where are all the early manuscripts?
  3. Why do scholars disagree so much about the wording of the original New Testament?

He answered the first by arguing that several NT books were composite works and that it’s impossible for us to get back to the original wording of those books. His examples included 2 Corinthians, John, Acts, Mark, and Luke. Among other things, he argued thatall critical scholars recognize that 2 Corinthians was never sent out by Paul in that form, that it was originally two different letters that Paul wrote which were later fused together. But this is not true: not all critical scholars believe this (e.g., Raymond Brown argues against it, as do Carson & Moo, Ellis, Guthrie, and a host of others). Regarding John’s Gospel, Bart said that chapter 21 was added later. I argued that this is by no means a settled belief, and that a doctoral student at Dallas Seminary, Charles Cummings, is writing his dissertation on this very topic. We also discussed Mark’s Gospel, which Bart claimed has a lost original ending. He was presupposing that the text after Mark 16.8 was lost and that scribes filled it in with what they could. I agree that later scribes added to the Gospel (there are multiple endings), but that the last leaf was almost surely not lost. The reason is that Mark almost surely wrote on a scroll rather than a codex (the modern book-form with binding on one side and individual pages). The codex form was invented late in the first century, but the best scholars on the codex-form, T. C. Skeat and C. H. Roberts, in their book The Birth of the Codex, argued that Mark’s Gospel was written on a scroll. If on a scroll, then the last leaf would be the most protected. I believe that Mark intended to conclude his Gospel at 16.8, as do most scholars of the last fifty yearsBart was overstating his case.

This first question really addresses composition criticism rather than textual criticism. It struck me that Bart was using this tactic as a way to win the debate, simultaneously detouring us from the real discussion. Yet even a scholar the stature of Kurt Aland, unquestionably the finest German textual critic of the last sixty years, said that there is zero evidence in the manuscripts for such compositions and that all the variants that ever came down the pike are still to be found in the existing manuscripts. Bart did not respond to this point. Continue Reading →