Idioms of the Bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels

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The original copyright on this book was 1931 (latest 1985), so I’m not reviewing a resource hot off the press. My copy, purchased in the bookstore of Principia Upper School in St. Louis, MO, is a paperback printed by HarperCollinsSanFrancisco,  ISBN 0-06-064927-5. It’s turning yellow around the edges, being cheaply produced. But oh, is it valuable.

The author, due to his unlikely combination of birth (Assyrian country boy), education (credentialed scholar), and faith (Christian), was uniquely prepared to contribute this work to the wide world of Bible scholarship, translation, and Christian worship. The sad thing is, that his work has not had more impact. The key to his importance is that he grew up a master of the same Aramaic idioms and colloquialisms that were au courant to the writers of the Bible — and to Jesus.

The Middle Eastern languages are noted for swarms of colorful — often flamboyant — idioms.   Here’s a quote from the back cover blurb:  “[Bible writers] wrote for their own people in the plain language of their times, so that even the unlearned might understand God’s Word. Over the centuries, inaccurate translations and misunderstanding of customs and concepts have led to difficulties in bringing the biblical message to contemporary English-speaking readers.”

Some Aramaic idioms we understand readily:  “A pearl of great price”? That’s easy: a great truth. (Matt. 13: 46)  But: “If thy hand or foot offend thee, cut them off”? (Matt. 18: 8) How gruesome! No, not to the original hearers. It was typically-extreme imagery employed to make ones’ point securely:  Stop stealing, Stop trespassing. Just STOP.

The Jews seem to have had a unified sense of life and Life. Heaven and hell were primarily present tense experiences. “Kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13: 24) would refer to “A universal state; a reign of peace and harmony.” Hell as a location of sorts (when translating the word “Sheol”) was simply a resting place for the departed. We have later Christian doctrine to thank for the concepts of devils as beings, hell as a site of burning damnation, heaven as a place of future reward, etc. Milton, too, is largely responsible for making this imagery concrete to the Western mind and for overlaying that imagery onto the Bible.   [This could lead to a discussion of sharia law. Is it really the ancient thoughts and practices brought forward, or a literal interpretation or misunderstanding of metaphorically-stated, ancient truths?]

When “hell” translates “Gehenna”, I believe it does refer to the burning dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. The Aramaic speakers would have been using the term metaphorically, as disposing of worthless ideas, cultural trash. Lamsa writes that “gates of hell” (Matt. 16: 18) would refer to “evil forces; opposition”.

The Dark Ages were a time when connection with the past was broken. The Renaissance only partially succeeded in reestablishing continuity. The Enlightenment actually created other barriers to the past.  No wonder Mary Baker Eddy wrote what she did in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 24: 4. “Acquaintance with the original texts, and willingness to give up human beliefs (established by hierarchies, and instigated sometimes by the worst passions of men), open the way for Christian Science to be understood, and make the Bible the chart of life, where the buoys and healing currents of Truth are pointed out.”

Just a few more samples. The familiar “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” is a literal translation of “It is easier to thread a rope through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven.”  We kinda get the meaning of the first, despite its exaggerated imagery. But the second is so reasonable:  The rich man must lose something twined closely about him now, before he is fit for heaven.

“Take the little book and eat it”  = Remember it by heart; make it part of you. (Rev. 10)

“Sweet in my mouth like honey” = I was overcome by the secret the book contained.

“It made my belly bitter.” = I could not impart the secret.

And so it goes.

How Jesus Became God: the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

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Author: Bart D. Ehrman (HarperOne 2014)

In this book, Ehrman provides a timeline showing the evolution of the way Christians down the centuries have striven to understand the first-century phenomenon of Jesus, in particular, his relationship to God.

The pattern is set in the Gospels:

Mark — Jesus becomes God’s adopted son at his baptism. This is not the second-tier sonship we might envision. In those days in the Roman Empire, a powerful man might adopt an adult man, chosen for the younger man’s demonstrated fine qualities. An adopted son often took precedence over biological sons in the inheritance. The prime example:  Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Octavian, who became the emperor Caesar Augustus while the natural son tiptoed into the shadows of history.

Matthew and Luke:  Further down the line of time and experience, Christians felt Jesus had become the exalted human/son of God through the manner of his divinely induced birth.

John:  Here, Jesus has no human birth recorded. Instead, he is presented as a pre-existent divine being who came to earth as a human and returned to the heavenly realm.  The man Jesus was divinity incarnate.

This summary is a bare synopsis of a very detailed history of Christology, of our attempts to make human sense of the divinely sensible.  It is a tale best told by a non-believer, as here. Erhman has segued from evangelical Christian to a something resembling an agnostic, which seems to help him portray the byways as well as the highways in an evenhanded, unexcited way.  The book provides a valuable tool for understanding Christian perspectives other than one’s own — and certainly can help the thinker evaluate his or her own understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Paul: A Man Who Changed the World

This book was written by Henrietta Buckmaster, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1965.  “My” copy, obtained by interlibrary loan from Wellesley Free library, shows the signs of readers’ love:  Nearly 50 years of food stains, pencil and ink notations, yellowing and mellowing of wood-based paper, frayed cloth cover — all indicative of the treasure inside.

“Paul was the architect of Christianity. Almost every human being in the western world has been influenced by his understanding of the Christ.” Buckmaster’s book is creative nonfiction, with the caveat that everything written about Paul to date had relied heavily on speculation, so that her book, too — based on her deep and wide reading as well as travel to his stomping grounds — emerged from a leap of imagination.

The value of this book to me springs from her research into the world of the 40s and 50s of the common era, setting her spiritual understanding of Paul as closely as can be into the realities of his experience. She brings us there, she brings him here.

The other characters are fleshed out, too. Agrippa, Festus, Barnabas, Silas/Silvanus. What if Buckmaster were writing today, when we know so much more about Phoebe, Priscilla as well as Aquila, Lydia? It’s a mark of her day that every single work in he bibliography was written by a man. And then — there’s Henrietta.

I would like to own a copy of this book, for my own frequent reference.