Inter-testamental Reflections on Prophecy and Canon

Recently, I had the chance to teach Old Testament (Biblical) Theology  at a local Bible College here in the Philippines. I usually teach Missions, and Pastoral Care on occasion, so it was rather exciting.septuagint

As I was preparing, and as I was teaching, several interesting things struck me. I won’t go into everything here, but I was struck by some aspects of the Bible as the Inter-testamental period was approaching. They are rather related, and tied to issues of Prophecy and Canon.

  1.  The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) does have a feel of ending a plot line as we reach the post-exile. If one looks at Hosea (a book NOT from this period), Hosea’s rocky marriage feels like the history of God with Israel– as it was meant to. But in the exile, one feels like one has hit the resolution of the crisis, in a narrative plot— followed by the gradual restoration. With Nehemiah, one reaches the denoument. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abram a vast people and a land. This was fulfilled and restored. With the Mosaic Covenant, the people are, finally, throwing away their idols and seeking God (Yahweh), trying to abide by the Law (terms of the treaty with God). The promised dwelling of God with Israel, evidenced in the tabernacle and the first temple– and lost with the exile– is seen as restored with the second temple.
  2. There is a transition from the oral prophetic word to the written canon. This can be seen, for example, in II Baruch 85:3, “But now, the righteous have been assembled, and the prophets are sleeping. Also we have left our land, and Zion has been taken away from us, and we have nothing now apart from YAHWEH the Mighty One and HIS Torah” Additionally, Babylonian Talmud Sotah 48b, states that when Malachi died, “the Holy Spirit departed from Israel”…. meaning, I suppose, that there was no more prophetic witness. Tied to that was the role of Ezra, as well as new institutions to support the written word, including the Sanhedrin, synagogues, and rabbinical schools. People like to argue when the OT books were written… but the Torah appears as if it must predate considerably the exile (and I, personally, have no problem with it being penned primarily by Moses). The Deuteronomistic history is completed during the Exile, and the history of the Chronicler appears, based on the geneologies, to have been completed around 400BC. This transitio relates to the change of attitude of the people. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the people seem to be generally surprised and saddened at their faithlessness when read the Book of Deuteronomy. Knowing the unreliability of prophets (perhaps, especially, court prophets), the written word, canon, provided a stabler ground for their beliefs and ethics.
  3. There is a strong case for “Unfinished Business.” The Abrahamic Covenant wasn’t fully met. It would be difficult to say that through Abraham’s seed, all of the nations of the world were blessed by the time the Hebrew Bible was completed. The Davidic Covenant did not appear to have been fully met, with an unending dynasty. The New Covenant of Jeremiah (and related ideas in Ezekiel) did not appear to be fully established either. Finally, the lack of prophecy at this time was directly stated to be a temporary thing as both Joel and Malachi look forward to the restoration of visions and prophecy.
  4. The Septuagint established the precedent for the translatability of God’s Word. This is no minor thing. Even though the Jews did back away from it 300 years later, the pattern had been set. And Christians, despite some embracing “sacred languages” or “inspired translations” over time, generally recognized that God’s revelation is still God’s revelation even in translation. This is HUGE. In general, Islam never really made that leap. Truthfully, they really should have. There are no true “heart language” readers of 4th century BC Hebrew, 1st Century Koine Greek, or 7th century Arabic… so readers of Holy texts in the original must always translate to some extent. So the question is not whether translation is good or bad. Rather, the question is “Who should do the translation– unskilled readers, or skilled translators?”

So why does this all matter? Maybe it doesn’t, but it does for me.

  • The Hebrew Bible does really seem to set the stage for a New Covenant (as Jeremiah describes it). It seems like the end of a story arc, but much like the seasonal finale in a TV series, establishes hints as to what the new season will reveal and develop.
  • There is something healthy about the transition from oral prophecy to written canon. The focus on written canon appeared to be good for the Jewish people, providing a better standard for conduct. This is hardly surprising. Prophets were often unreliable in the Old Testament because of the temptation to say what what is not true. Some were false prophets because they were spokesmen for a false god, while others were false prophets in that they claimed to speak for God (Yahweh) but said what the people wanted to hear rather than what God needed them to hear.
  • The replacement of prophets with canon repeated itself in the New Testament time,  with claims of false prophets and false Christs. The Didache warned of prophets and apostles who were false due to improper motivations. Into the 2nd and 3rd centuries, prophets and apostles faded away, as the canon of NT Scripture, and the leadership structure of churches began to take away much of the need for these other offices. Some of the problems may be control issues between churchplantes/apostles and local churches (sodality versus modality structures), and a similar thing could be of prophets and local churches. The growth of cultic schisms in the second century led to a focus on determining a written canon. It also led to the idea of “apostolic succession”– establishing a ecclesio-geneological canon of sorts.
  • The growth today of the tendency of some denominations to embrace prophets and prophecy again– particularly among “Restorationist” groups, can be a bit troubling as the problems of the past have roots that can still resurface in the present. A fascination with prophecy (whether foretelling or forthtelling) still tempts people to fake it, saying what people want to hear. American “prophets” love to come to the Philippines to tell local Christians what they want to hear. The fascination with the contemporaneity and novelty of “new revelations” (and “secret knowledge”) can dull people to the reliable (but old) canon of the written word. I recall an acquaintance of mine who was attending a “prophecy” conference in the US. A self-styled prophet gave my friend a whole bunch of “prophecies” regarding the Philippines to take back here and publish. I just haven’t seen a good track record with these things, and considering the number of Christians living in the Philippines, if for some reason God decided that his written revelation and Spirit-illumination were inadequate, it seems pretty likely he would find a messenger who was local. But I could be wrong. (There is also a movement to create “Apostles” again as an office… but since the role has essentially nothing to do with the original NT role/office, it hardly deserves comment.)
  • The Septuagint, as well as the Jerusalem Council makes it clear that written canon does not mean ossified written relics. Canon is both translatable and contextualizable. As such, it has the qualities of both permanency and dynamism. The permanancy provides a better foundation to base one’s faith and action on, while the dynamism provides unique applicability to unique cultural circumstances.

I guess, in the end, I would say that a transition from oral prophecy to written canon is a good thing, and seeking to reverse it is going backwards, in more than one way.


Is the Bible Translatable? Part 3

Part 1 of this overall topic I suggested options regarding the translatability of the Bible. I suggested that the Bible is translatable, meaning that the Bible translated is still the Bible. Part 2 suggests the ramifications of saying that the Bible is translatable. It is a challenging viewpoint. Abd al-Jabbar in 995 AD (reference “Translating the Message” by Lamin Sanneh) wrote considerably on (against) Christians and the “Hellenization” of the teachings of Jesus. Of course I would argue that the primary underlying purpose of Al-Jabbar’s book is to deal with the fairly obvious issue that Mohammed’s interpretation of Jesus is considerably different from the Apostle’s interpretation. Al-Jabbar argued strenuously that the problem was that Jesus was “Hellenized”— translated into Greco-Roman culture while the Quran portrays a Semitic (although not Jewish) culture. Much of the rest of al-Jabbar’s arguments appear to draw more from his personal aesthetics than logic. In other words, al-Jabbar liked the idea that God’s revelation is not, or at least should not be, translatable. If one does not share such a preference, the arguments become weaker. Since al-Jabbar had been enculturated into a language and culture quite similar to that of the original writing down of the Quran, his aesthetic preference is quite understanable… but would apply to essentially no one in the 21st century.


Image result for ibaloi bible
Ibaloi Translation of the Bible


The Bible, in my mind at least, argues strongly for God’s message being translatable.

1. Pentecost. It is sad that many miss fairly obvious point of Pentecost. Some like to take the “speaking in other languages” and ascribe it to ecstatics (in part a problem of sloppy application of 1611 lingo). In Acts 2, languages were languages and it is wonderful that this was true. How did the church start? The Holy Spirit came and filled the 120 initiating the church age. The defining character of the Pentecost was that the message of God was given to Jesus’ disciples translated into the languages (and cultures) of the different groups who were present.

The defining characteristic of the church from the start is that God’s words are God’s Words regardless of language or culture.

2. The Gospels. Jesus spoke mostly, if not completely, in Aramaic. However, all four Gospels were written in Koine Greek– the lingua franca of the common people. Church tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was originially written in Hebrew and then later translated. There would be nothing wrong if that was true, but it seems doubtful. If one assumes that the traditional authors ascribed for each Gospel is correct, Matthew was a Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek.. Mark was a Hellenistic Jew who took the recollections of Peter, a Galilean Jew, and decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. Luke may have been Greek, but still took the eye witness accounts of Jesus life and words and translated them into common Greek. John was another Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. In other words, it is not the case that Jesus’ message and story was taken over by the Greeks. Rather, the followers of Christ, the ones who were to carry the message of Christ to the world, made a conscious choice to translate the message of Jesus into the common language of most of the known world.

The OT (Hebrew Bble) referenced in the Gospels was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The Gospel writers utilized the LXX when they were quoting the Hebrew Bible, and utilized the LXX when Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible. There was no undermining of the LXX by suggesting that it is “a translation of the message of the Hebrew Bible.”

3. Multi-cultural Bible. The Bible was written over many centuries (some suggest 1500 years… some less). During that time three languages were used: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And language even changed during that time. Even more, there were numerous cultures over all of that time (from Pre-exile, to exile, to post-exile, to Roman era Judea, to Roman era Gentile regions). At the very least, this fact rejects the idea of a sacred culture or a sacred language.

4. Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 speaks of the council regarding contextualization, or cultural translation. Can a Christian be culturally Greek and be a Christian, or must he (or she) become culturually Jewish. The council decided that based on the works of the Holy Spirit with the Samaritans, Cornelius and family, and in Antioch and Asia Minor, God accepted Gentiles as followers of Christ without taking on Jewish culture.

It would be hard to make the argument that cultural translation is blessed by God while believing that language translation is not.

This is not to say that there are not risks of cultural distortion. I would argue that the doctrine of the Impassibilty of God has more to do with Greek ideals (and reimforced by Islamicist ideals) than what the Bible actually describes. Present American Christian culture seems, in my mind at least, to see Jesus as a White upper-middle class Republican. We have to be careful of cultural distortion… but such distortion doesn’t negate the value of translation.

5.  Babel Narrative. In Genesis is the story of God confusing the languages. As Evangelicals, we would take this story as historical. Some read the story as a punishment. However, that doesn’t seem to be the big issue. The people were supposed to multiply and spread all over the earth. They refused so God gave them different languages so that they would naturally separate based on different languages, than became the basis, presumably, for language families. But note that language diversity happens naturally when groups are isolated. If they obeyed God and spread out naturally, their languages would have diverged from each other. They refused so God divided their languages and then they spread out. Either way, it was God’s desire for language and cultural diversity.

6.  Revelation 7:9 speaks of the ideal setting of worship— around the throne of God. It is a balancing of unity and diversity. United in the act of worship and the object of worship. They were also united in message, clothing, and at least one aspect of action (waving palm branches). Here however, is where the unity stops. In terms of diversity, the crowd is composed of all nations (ethnic groups), tribes (‘phylon’), peoples, and languages. The last one, languages, could simply point to the diversity. But it also could point out that all different languages are included in the worship. I don’t know, but drawing from the Pentecost event, I would like to see it as evidence of language diversity, not simply diversity of people.

I will stop here. The impact of translation on people’s lives around the world could argue in favor of the translatability of the Bible. One could also point out that cultures often appear to open people up to the gospel rather than inhibit it. But I will leave that for others to consider. Ultimately, The Bible is translatable and still be the Bible. That is a good thing for us since the languages and cultures of the Bible are gone.