“We need transformed people today, and not just people with answers.” -Richard Rohr

When is the last time you were surprised by something you read in the Bible?  When is the last time you read something in the scriptures that astonished you and made you re-think your ideas about God or life or humanity?

Most of us fall into certain assumptions about the Bible somewhere along the way.  We think of it as a collection of rules or behavior modification or just advice on how to be good.  Or we think of it as an anachronistic collection of stories that may occasionally have some relevance but that doesn’t really have that much to do with our daily lives beyond being saved.  Most of us accept that it is somehow a tool for our spiritual growth and development, but we often don’t have a clear idea of how to use it that way.  

I remember attending a graduation dinner at a certain faith-based university years ago.  Meri and I were seated next to a bright-eyed young woman, one of the graduating students, who was accompanied by her parents.  She was graduating with a high GPA in her major, Christian Education, and she had earned a certificate that authorized her to teach Bible and faith classes in her  denomination.  Her parents were justifiably proud of her accomplishments and her dad said, “Tell the pastor what you told me earlier—about what Bible means, what it stands for.”  “Oh,” she said with a big smile, “it’s an acronym:  Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, B-I-B-L-E!”  “Isn’t that great!?” enthused her dad.  I smiled and said something politely encouraging, but inwardly I was dismayed.

I’ve heard that acronym numerous times since that evening, and I’ve felt the same sense of dismay every time I’ve heard it.   Invariably it has come up in circumstances where I didn’t feel free to say, “No, that’s a horrible acronym!  That’s a worse-than-useless way to describe the Bible!”  

Let me explain.  First and foremost, the focus of the Bible is not about Leaving Earth—unless you want to say Leaving It Better Than When We Arrived.  It’s true that there is a fair amount of material that concerns our salvation.  But salvation, at least as the scriptures understand it, is about being made well, whole, complete.  And yes, rescued, but that’s the most limited understanding of the word.  Plus, it’s clear in the Bible that God intends salvation for all of creation, not just you and me.  And yes, there are some instructions to encourage and help us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” but those instructions are given so that we can all live more peaceful and healthy lives here on this earth, in the community of humanity, now.  The Bible is not about going to heaven.  It’s about how God has been working to bring heaven to earth.  

But there’s another big error in that acronym and it’s right there in the first word.  Basic.  We tend to hear “basic” as “simple.”  Some of the “instructions” seem simple at first glance, but that’s the problem.  When God does give an instruction, you’re supposed to do more than glance at it.  You’re supposed to figure out how you’re going to live it.  And living even the “simple” instructions can be more complicated than we tend to think…because we don’t think.

Take the Ten Commandments, the most “basic” instructions we’re given in the Bible.   “You shall have no other gods,” says God.  And that sounds simple enough until we start to really analyze our relationship with money or other things that are important to us. “Show me what you trust, what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god,” said Luther.  “You shall not commit adultery,” said God.  “If you look at someone with lust, you’re violating that one,” said Jesus.  “You shall not murder,” said God.  “If you’re carrying a grudge or hating someone, you’ve violating that one,” said Jesus.  And on it goes.  The “instructions” we are given may be basic in the sense that they set a baseline for us, but they’re anything but basic in terms of trying to live them. 

And that’s another problem with the acronym.  It reduces this amazing library of books and letters to a pocket guide—and one that’s pretty useless, at that.  There are whole sections of the Bible that are about how people have struggled to understand and live by the “basic” instructions God gave them.  There are sections full of songs and poems of praise or lament.  There are parables, short stories and fables.  There are histories.  There is theology—writers sharing what they had learned or come to understand about God.  There are hopes and prayers and visions.  There are heroes.  There are villains.

“This marvelous anthology of books and letters called the Bible is all for the sake of astonishment!” writes Richard Rohr in his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.  “It’s for divine transformation (theosis), not intellectual or ‘small-self’ coziness,” 

I invite you to start reading the Bible in a new way.  I invite you to forget what you think it says and let it speak to you as if you’re hearing or reading it for the first time.  I invite you to open yourself to the possibility of being astonished as you allow yourself to be led by the Spirit on a journey of discovery.  The Bible…whatever you think it is, it’s not that.  It’s more.  Much, much more.

A Season of Fasting

One year when I was serving in the Church Relations Office at California Lutheran University we decided to put together a Lenten devotional that could be emailed in daily installments to students, faculty, staff, and patrons.  Most of the feedback was positive.  One student, however, wrote us a rather heated letter.  He was not only opposed to our Lenten devotional, he was opposed to Lent.  “There is nothing in the Bible about Lent,” he wrote.  “It is a thing made up by the church.  If it is not in the Bible, we should not do it.” 

I wrote back what I hope was a gentle letter explaining that the practice of setting aside a time for fasting and preparation before the celebration of Easter was, in fact, one of the earliest practices of the church.  I also explained that it was the Church that gathered and assembled the books into the sacred library we call the Bible, but that there was nothing like an official agreement on which books were included and which were excluded until the Council of Rome in 382 CE.  So, even though the individual books of the Bible might be older, I explained, the followers of Jesus have been practicing Lent longer than they’ve had a Bible.  

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent.  There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, but the season of Lent is only 40 days.  That’s because the six Sundays are not included in the fasting of Lent.  They are, though, included in the liturgical observation of the season.  We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia during Lent.  In some traditions, the Alleluia is symbolically buried in a casket under the altar during this season and is “resurrected” for the celebration of Easter.

We begin our observance of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes.  Ashes have been a symbol since ancient times of grief and sorrow.  They also serve as a sign  of humility, or of repentance.  On Ash Wednesday we stand humbly before God and remember that we are both sinful and mortal.  

In Genesis, when God is escorting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and into a life of difficulty, God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)

Later in Genesis when Abraham is bargaining with God and trying to keep God from destroying Sodom, Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27)  These are the words we quote as we mark ourselves with ashes.

Job, after his trials and tribulations, finally sees God’s majesty revealed and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Jeremiah, when he’s calling the people of Judah to repent and warning them of the destruction that is coming upon them, cries out, O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

In the book of Daniel, when Daniel is preparing to ask God to intervene and show mercy for his people, he writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

Ashes continued to be used as a sign of contrition in the early church.  Tertullian (c. 160-225) included sackcloth and ashes in the rite of repentance.  Around the year 800, those who had committed serious sins were covered in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes before they were allowed to receive Holy Communion at Easter.  Sometime around the year 1000, as Lent came to be viewed as a season of penance, the practice of strewing ashes on the head was extended to the entire congregation.

Ashes remind us that because we are mortal, our life, our strength and our help come from God.  They open the doorway into Lent,  a time when we reflect on the way of Jesus and follow his path and listen to him more closely.

Lent is a time when we renew our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting. 

There are a variety of ways to fast.  The traditional practice of many has been to give up meat during this time.  It has been the practice of some to have two small meals during the day then break the fast after sunset.  Some people simply give up something they’re attached to for the 40 days:  chocolate, television, podcasts, Facebook.  You can fast from anything that’s a daily part of your life.  The idea is to set that thing aside and give its space to Christ.  For instance, if you’re giving up lunch for the 40 days, then during that lunch hour you can spend time in prayer or meditation.  

On Sundays and Feast Days we get a break from fasting.  So if you’re giving up red meat for Lent, you can still have a bite of corned beef on the Feast of St. Patrick!

This time of fasting and preparation before Easter may have originated in the preparation for baptism.  The Didcache, a Syrian manual of church practice that dates to about the year 100, instructs that both those who are being baptized and those who are baptizing should fast for one or two days before the baptism.

At some point early on baptisms became tied to Easter.  Lent, then, became a time to prepare for baptism.  The practice of this, though, was far from uniform.  In Alexandria, Athanasius required his catechumens to prepare for 40 days, studying for 3 hours each day.  In other places, though, the preparation might be as little as a a week. 

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, in addition to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, several important matters of church order and practice were standardized.  One of the things that was decided was how the date of Easter should be determined.  While they were at it, the bishops also agreed that Lent should be 40 days leading up to Easter.  

They didn’t call it Lent, by the way.  That’s our English word from the Old English word Lencten,  for Spring.  The Eastern bishops called it Tessarakosti and the Western bishops called it Quadragesima.  Both mean 40 days.

So why 40 days?

Though the Bible as such had not been assembled yet, the bishops at Nicaea were very familiar with the texts that would eventually be included in it.  They knew that the number 40 in these sacred texts represented a period of testing, trial, judgment, or probation.  In particular they were mindful of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.

The number 40 occurs 146 times in the scriptures.  Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in Midian before God called him to lead his people out of slavery.  He stayed on Mount Sinai with God and fasted for 40 days.  The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.

Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights walking to Mount Horeb.  Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh gave them 40 days to repent or be destroyed.

Forty days may seem like a long time to fast, but there was also a practical reason for it.  In the days before refrigeration and food preservation, and in times when it wasn’t easy or inexpensive to ship food from other places, this would be the time of year when supplies of some foods, especially grains, vegetables and fruits would start to run low.  Fasting for an extended period could help to stretch these supplies until the new crops, especially the early grains, began to produce.

So are you planning to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent?  Are you thinking about praying more?  Meditating more?  Giving more?  Reading a devotional?   Here’s a suggestion:  Practice the discipline of kindness.  Be kind.  Practice having a generous spirit.  

Are you thinking of fasting?  It’s a worthwhile discipline and you can learn a lot about yourself by doing it.  But if giving up chocolate or television or meat or anything like that seems like it might be too much of a challenge, let me pass along this list of Suggestions for Fasting During Lent from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

This is a good time to listen.  

Listen to the message of the ashes.  The message of our mortality doesn’t have to be bad news.  God has breathed life into dust and ashes.  

Listen to our history.  We are part of a very long story that is still unfolding.  

Listen to Jesus.  He has called us to renew the world…and to be renewed ourselves.

How Are You Translating?

For this is how God loved the world—all of it, everything: God gave God’s unique son so that everyone who trusts into him need not be destroyed but may have eternal life. For God did not send this son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be made whole through him. – John 3:16-17 (my translation)

I know.  That’s not the way your Bible says it.  It’s not the way my Bibles say it, either.  I have several.  It goes with the job.  No, that’s not the way it reads in your Bible or mine, but it is a perfectly legitimate translation from the ancient Greek text.

So how does it sound to you, this word about the Word in different words?  Does “trust into him” make you pause?  Before you mentally substituted the more familiar “believe in him” did you stop to think about the difference?  What do you mean when you say “believe?”  Is there a difference between believing as intellectual affirmation versus trusting?  Can you believe in someone but still not trust them with your life?  What’s the difference between in and into?  Subtle, that one.  But doesn’t in sound more like stasis, something settled, while into is more of an ongoing process?  Why do so many translations say condemn when the Greek word most frequently means to judge.  True, it can mean condemn, but why leap to that?  Oh, and saved.  Such an interesting, interesting word.  Sozo in Greek.  It can mean to be rescued, to be made safe, to be removed from danger, but its oldest meaning is to be healed, to be made whole.

So how do you prefer to hear it?  Heard one way it can be about God’s plan for fire insurance of the eternal kind. Heard another way it can be a message about God’s intervention to heal this world, all of us and everything else.  Which translation speaks to you?

How are you translating the world around you?  How are you translating the other people you encounter in life?  How are you translating yourself?

“Love one another as I have loved you,” says Jesus, later in the Gospel of John.  He makes it a commandment of all things.  Really loving each other involves learning to really hear each other and see each other. David Augsburger wrote, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” To love you, I need to hear you.  To love me, you need to hear me.  We need to translate each other accurately.  To do that we each need to know something about how the other person is translating the world and interpreting their experience.

We are not looking at the world through the same eyes or hearing it through the same ears, but if, when we disagree, we stop to ask why we are seeing and hearing things so differently—if we take the first step in translating each other—then we’re taking the first steps in loving each other.  If nothing else, paying close attention to those around us can teach us all kinds of interesting things, even when they are not being particularly relational. “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind,” wrote Khalil Gibran.  And that’s love, too.

I Can Read it Myself. Sort of.

Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproach, for correction and restoration, and for instruction in righteousness and justice so that the person of God may be completely equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16, (my translation)

“I have my own Bible and I can read it myself,” said the man, a little heatedly. “I don’t need anybody to tell me what it says.” Much as I wanted to respond, I knew it wasn’t the right moment. That discussion would have to wait for a calmer time. Besides, I knew exactly how he felt. I remember feeling that way, too.

When I first went to seminary I thought I was pretty darn well prepared, at least in the important qualification of Knowing My Bible. In 1980 I had worked as a line producer on the team that recorded and produced Zondervan’s NIV translation of The Bible for distribution on cassette. We would start recording the narrator at 6:00 a.m. Mid-day I would edit the tapes, cutting out mistakes and outtakes. In mid-afternoon we often recorded actors from the South Coast Repertory Theater voicing different characters in the text. I did some of the voice work, too. In the evening, more editing, then mixing with sound effects and music. Often we worked until midnight. Many nights I simply slept at the studio so I could start the cycle all over again at 6 the next morning. For nine months I was utterly immersed in the Bible. Genesis through Revelation. So when I entered seminary in the fall of 1992, I Knew My Bible.

I knew my Bible. Well, I knew that Bible, the NIV—and that was what set me up for my first shock in my first class on my first day at seminary. We were required to used a different translation! We were required to use the NRSV as our primary Bible, but also to use it in reference to other selected translations, commentaries and lexical materials. Not only that, but, at least in Dr. Victor Gold’s Old Testament class, the NIV was specifically NOT allowed. This did not sit well with me. When I asked why, he stated that there were several reasons and that he hoped that by the time I completed his class I would be able to answer that question for myself. Then he picked up my copy of the NIV from my desk, thumbed through a few pages and read from the forward, “One of the goals of this translation team was to adhere as strictly as possible to the traditional interpretation of the text.” The traditional interpretation of the text. “That’s code,” he said, “for the King James Version, and the King James, for all its poetic grandeur, is in many respects a very poor translation of the original texts.”

I thought I knew my Bible. I thought I could read it myself and didn’t really need anyone to tell me what it said. I was just beginning to learn how little I really knew. It was more than uncomfortable. Sometimes I felt something akin to anger as this thing I loved so much, this hard-won familiarity with the text in which I had taken so much pride and in which I had found some necessary self-assurance as I embarked on this adventure in seminary education was dismantled piece by piece to reveal a chasm of ignorance.

Thank God for my professors, my teachers, who managed to humble me without humiliating me so that they could spark a hunger for a deeper knowledge and more complex and meaningful relationship with the Bible and, more importantly, the God we encounter in its pages. Thank God for Bob Smith and Everett Kalin who taught us to read and translate the ancient Koine Greek of the New Testament and opened our eyes to myriad translation choices that must be made in doing so. Thank God, even, for curmudgeonly Victor Gold who set a very high bar for exegesis of the Old Testament, demanding that we understand the cultural context in which the texts were written, requiring us to compare translations and textual variants, and requiring us to compare the Hebrew stories to analogous stories from the ancient writings of the other neighboring ancient cultures. Thank God for Martha Ellen Stortz who boggled our minds in Church History with an overview of the astonishing diversity of beliefs that fell under the label of “Christian” in its first four centuries before Orthodoxy was officially established by imperial edict. Thank God for all of them for teaching us that The Bible, as such, didn’t even exist until Constantine ordered Eusebius to arrange production of 50 copies, and that, even then, the question of which books were in and which were out would not be “officially” closed for another 12 centuries and is, in fact, still an open question when different denominations and traditions discuss the matter. Thank God for Timothy Lull, that giant of a Luther scholar who helped us put all these pieces together in the context of Martin Luther’s writings, theology and interpretive paradigms. Thank God for Ted Peters, the systematic theologian, who opened our eyes to the ways that these sacred texts have created divergent theological rivers through history and are still branching new streams today because different people in different places living in different circumstances will hear the same text in very different ways—and God is speaking through all of them. Thank God for Gary Pence, the thoughtfully good-natured classics scholar/theologian/psychologist who helped keep our heads from exploding and steered our angst into what would eventually become deep pastoral channels. Thank God for all of them for reminding us, repeatedly, that this book we cherish and carry with us, this book which has quite literally shaped our world—this book is not a book at all, but a library, an aggregation of ancient pieces written at diverse times over a period of 3000 years by more than 40 authors in at least 3 languages—a collection of history, folk tales, poetry, laws and prophetic oracles that portray how these ancient peoples experienced God so that we can have some context for our own experience of God.

I have my own Bible. I can read it for myself. But oh, how much richer I am because I have learned to read it with others. And I still need others to help me discern more fully what it is saying. Thank God for those who have read with me, who taught me to read more deeply, who teach me still.

Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed, and the ears of those who have hearing will listen. –Isaiah 32.2-3

So…with whom are you reading your Bible?

The Light Side of Lent

“Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle.” -James 1.17 (The Message)

Lent came early for me this year, its deep, contemplative shadow absorbing some of the shine of Christmas, Epiphany and Transfiguration, not dimming those shining feasts, exactly, but certainly making them stand out in starker contrast so that I could examine more of their details, looking past the sheer brightness of the revealed Christ to see the very human Jesus who is often overshadowed by all that incandescent divinity, obscured under the heaviness of all that light. You have to look through some pretty dark lenses and filters if you’re going to see what’s happening on the surface of the sun.

What happened was this: on the 5th day of Christmas I learned that in a deep and dark precinct of my body, a place where, literally, the sun don’t shine, a gang of cells had become rebellious, mutating and multiplying according to their own whim instead of according to their ordained function. In other words, cancer. If it had its own way, this gang of cells would take over everything, never realizing that in doing so they would destroy themselves by contaminating and collapsing the little universe in which they live and move and have their being, namely me.

Ah, but even in the valley of the shadow there are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light; even the cross has to stand in the light to throw a shadow. I am blessed to live in a time when there is a potent tool to suppress the cellular rebellion inside me. And get this… that tool is—are you ready?—light! Light is quite literally saving my life. In the 2nd week of Epiphany I began my own little Lent. Every day for 40 days (really, 40 days!) I go to a clinic and lie down on a table under a linear accelerator which bombards me with a stream of photons. Photons. Particles of light! It works like this: the rebellious cells can’t stand the photons, the light. They wither and die. But the healthy cells adapt. “And this is the judgment,” says John 3:19, “that the light has come into the world but some love darkness because they are up to no good.”

Oh, the metaphors! Oh, the analogies! One could riff on all the cancerous business of contemporary culture or personal failings for all 40 days of Lent and still barely scratch the surface. But let’s not. Yes, there are devils and beasts in the dark hollows of our personal wildernesses, but there are also angels. See Mark 1:13 if you don’t believe me.

So here is Lent–forty days to shine a little light on what ails you. Forty days to shine some light into the darkness of your duffle and see if anything slithers away. Forty days to lay out your laundry in the sunshine and maybe dispose of some of those old attitudes and ideas that never did fit quite right on a child of God. Here is Lent—a good gift of a season full of shadows, but shadows that testify to the presence and power of the Light.

Note:  My 40 sessions of radiation therapy will be complete on Tuesday, March 17, the Feast of St. Patrick. 

The Unintentional Tyranny of the KJV

The other day we were having some back and forth on Facebook about Bible translation issues in response to an article I re-posted on my wall from about some of the agenda-driven translation choices in the NIV. One problem not mentioned in the article, though, “afflicts” nearly all translation teams and is, I suspect, mandated by Bible publishers. That problem, and it has enormous implications, is the perceived obligation to not stray too far from the King James Version, especially in the most familiar passages. This is not because the KJV is a particularly good translation. In many, many ways, it is not, and for a fuller understanding of why, I strongly recommend the book God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson. But for all its faults as a translation, the KJV has been, for generations, The Bible; for some denominations, it is still the only translation allowed.

As a pastor who usually preaches the lectionary texts, I quite frequently find it necessary or useful to single out a particular word or phrase in the text and talk about translation choices—choices which may have significant impact on the theology and application that arises from the passage. In this week’s gospel, there’s a wonderful case in point from Matthew 11:29-30.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That’s the NRSV translation and it hews closely to the KJV though the language is updated. “Meek” becomes “gentle” and “ye” becomes “you,” and so on, but it still says what the KJV says.

Now, putting aside the fact that if you’re preaching or teaching this text you should probably spend a moment talking about what a yoke is unless you’re in a rural community where horses and mules are still used, the real translation issue here is that the Greek word zygon, which has been translated as “yoke” ever since it appeared that way in the KJV, has another meaning. It can also mean a balancing scale, the kind used in the marketplace to weigh something.

So here’s an alternate translation from the Greek. “Come alongside me all who are weary and burdened. Take up and use my scale and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my scale is kind and my burden is insignificant.”

Translating it this way makes the passage less about “pulling our weight” one way or another or letting Jesus help us bear the great load of life that weighs on us all, and more about the freedom and peace we find when we set aside our need to be constantly judging and evaluating both others and ourselves. It can also be heard as an invitation to lay down the burden of the criticisms and judgments others have leveled at us and, instead, let Jesus do the evaluating. This fits, too, with the earlier part of the text where Jesus takes the crowd to task for their cynical and critical attitude and their failure to simply accept him for who he is, as he is.

So you can see how the choice of how to translate even one word may make a difference in how a passage is understood and interpreted. The theology that arises from thinking we are called to put ourselves in Jesus’ harness and pull whatever load he would have us bear is not bad theology, but it’s quite different from the theology of finding rest for your soul by putting down the burden of criticism and judgmental thinking.

Another example of a passage where a significant difference in theological understanding depends on translation choices is one that Biblical literalists like to quote a lot: 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The NRSV renders it this way: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Once again, this echoes the KJV: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for…”

From a translating standpoint, there are two primary problems with this passage. The first is the choice to translate pasa graphei as “All Scripture.” In particular, the choice to translate graphei as “Scripture” (with a capital S) is a choice that was driven by a pre-decided theology. The word graphei, in its most common use, simply means “writings.” “Scripture” is a very weighted word; it implies that the writings in question are in some way holy or sacred. To the translating team addressing this passage in the early 17th century, this seemed entirely appropriate. In their minds there was no question that the work they were translating was, in fact, Holy Scripture, so it is natural that they would assume the original writer intended something similar, especially since in verse 15 he had reminded the recipient, Timothy, “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” But even referring to “sacred writings” in one verse doesn’t necessarily justify the leap to “All Scripture” in the next.

What we don’t have here is any concrete idea of what, exactly, the writer regarded as “sacred writings,” though we can make some good guesses. We do know that the early church made significant use of many books of the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), particularly Genesis and Psalms. We know that the prophetic books, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah were often used and quoted. One thing we have to bear in mind, however, is that when this letter to Timothy was written, nobody had decided which books could officially be regarded as “Scripture.” It would more than 250 years before serious discussions of the canon of scripture began in earnest. The Church, itself, would not be well-enough organized to find substantial commonality of doctrine for such discussions to be productive until after the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. And while the Rabbis who began meeting and teaching at Jamnia some time around 90 CE did have long and interesting discussions about which books “defiled the hands,” their way of saying they were to be considered holy, they came to no conclusions about an official canonical list for the Jewish Bible, although they universally agreed that Torah was to be considered supreme among all writings.

So back to the translation issue at hand: “All Scripture is inspired by God.” Bearing in mind that nobody had yet decided what was and what was not Scripture when this was written, is there another way to translate it? Let’s look at a literal word-for-word translation of the original Greek. Where there is more than one translation choice for a word, a second option is offered in parentheses. “All writings God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, for refuting error, for correction (or restoration), for instruction (or discipline) in righteousness…” Did you notice that “is” isn’t there? That’s the second important translation issue with this passage, and where you decided to put that little word “is,” which isn’t in the original but has to be inserted somewhere to make a sentence that makes sense in English, can make a pretty significant difference in how the verse is read and understood.

Here’s how the great Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore translated this passage: “Every writing that is divinely inspired is also useful for teaching, for argument, for correction, for education in righteousness…” Every writing that is divinely inspired. Every God-breathed writing. That’s a long way from “All Scripture is divinely inspired.” One translation presumes that the reader and the community of faith will discern which writings are and which are not “God-breathed.” The other implies that the canon of Scripture is clearly defined, known to all and, since it is God-breathed, not to trifled with.

Interestingly, that canon, itself was redefined in 1647 at the Westminster Convention of Reformed Churches, nearly 4 decades after the King James Translation was completed and published. They eliminated the books commonly known as The Apocrypha, reducing the total number of books to 66. They did this, of course, without the consent or participation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches or even, for that matter, the Lutherans. So, apparently, “All Scripture” can be redefined if a large enough group of the same theological persuasion agrees to do so.

It’s interesting to me that the theological descendants of those who prefer that King James or King James-ish translation, the theological descendants of the ones who were quick to discard a whole collection of books that didn’t fit their particular qualifications, are the ones who tend to be more often literalist in their reading of the Scriptures and lean more toward Fundamentalism in their theology. It makes sense, of course, if you believe that the question of divine inspiration is settled and put to bed. But if you translate that same passage another way, if you read it to mean that one of our jobs as people of faith is to discern if, when and how a writing is inspired, it leads to an entirely different understanding of how we encounter, understand and apply the Word of God in our communities and our lives.

Since its publication in 1611, the Authorized Version Commissioned by His Majesty King James has imposed a quiet and subtle tyranny over all subsequent translations. In doing so, it has also powerfully shaped the theologies of English language readers, Americans in particular. I think it could be argued that not all of that theological shaping has been for the best.