Categories
Bible Essays

Choosing Translations for Bible Study

{The original version of this post appeared on Anabaptist Perspectives.}

I discuss these ideas with Kyle Stoltzfus and Reagan Schrock in this podcast.

A preacher should have as much money in his library as in his pickup truck, or so says a pastoral advisor to my church. Those charged to regularly teach the scriptures need good tools for study. So do the rest of us. Not all of us will spend thousands of dollars on commentaries or devote years of our lives to studying the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the scripture was written. But, as Christians, we all must be students of the Word.

Fortunately, the most important tools for Bible Study are inexpensive and easy to obtain, at least for English speakers. The tools I have in mind are the Bible itself, in its multiple translations into our native language. Bible translations can be a confusing subject. There is an alphabet suit of different translations available like the ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, NAB, NEB, RSV ….and the list goes on! What we should remember is that this represents an embarrassment of riches for English speakers. In this article I focus, not on choosing a bible for primary use like public reading and memorizing, but rather on assembling a small collection of translations for study purposes.

Choosing a set of translations for Bible study

Bible apps make it easy to compare many translations of a given verse. This is helpful, but I still advise getting two or three translations in print. You will become familiar with these select translations, and it will be easier to pore over passages, or to read extensively, with a book in front of you. If you don’t own at least two or three translations in print, what should you purchase to build your library? If you have several translations and want to add a few more, how do you know what translations will best complement your existing collection?

Of all the translations on the market, many fall into families, or natural groupings. You want to aim for a balanced collection by choosing Bibles from various groupings. One family of translations consists of those that derive from King James Version of 1611. This includes the NASB, the ESV, the NKJV, and NRSV as well as the older RSV, RV, and ASV and a host of other minor translations. (Don’t worry, the table below imposes some order on this confusing alphabet soup!) While these translations will vary among themselves, it is helpful to compare them to another translation that is not a derivative of the familiar KJV.

Another grouping of English translations is those done by Evangelical scholars. The ESV, NIV, CSB, NET, NLT and others reflect the biblical scholarship of the modern Evangelical community. On the one hand Evangelicals are generally committed to a high view of scripture and to understanding scripture in line with historic Christian orthodoxy. This makes careful translations by Evangelicals a good choice for studying the Bible. On the other hand, even the most careful translations are inevitably affected by how the translators understand scripture and its teachings. For this reason, we do well to include translations from other branches of the Christian church and other scholarly communities.

The following table marks out four quadrants based on these two ways of grouping bible translations. The top left lists versions which derive from the KJV and have been translated by Evangelical scholars. The top right lists translations derived from the KJV, but not reflecting modern Evangelical scholarship. The bottom left represents other translations done by Evangelical scholars. The bottom right lists some other modern translations. At a minimum you should own at least one translation from each row and at least one from each column. Ideally your study collection would include one from each quadrant.

EvangelicalOther
KJV basedNASB
ESV
NKJV
RSV
NRSV
OtherNIV
CSB
NET
NEB
REB
NAB
It is helpful to own at least translation from each row and at least one from each column. Ideally your study collection would include one from each quadrant.

Notes on the Apocrypha and the Septuagint

You should have a copy of the Apocrypha. Most contemporary Anabaptists don’t consider it part of the Bible, but reading the Apocrypha provides an important background for understanding the New Testament, and you will frequently see it referenced by earlier Christian writers.  Most translations in the right-hand column are available with editions that include the Apocrypha.1 (For two contrasting perspectives on the Apocrypha see the Anabaptist Perspectives Episodes by David Bercot and Stephen Russell.)     

It is also helpful to have a translation of the Old Testament derived from the Septuagint. Before the time of Christ, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. The New Testament, itself of course written in Greek, often quotes the Greek Septuagint. Several English translations of the Septuagint are available and adding one to your tool kit is not a bad idea. (Learn more about the Septuagint in this episode from Anabaptist Perspectives.)

Notes on Translation Issues

One reason to study from multiple translations is so that we don’t blindly follow the quirks of any given translations. Diversity is protection. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of some differences among translations can be helpful. I will offer a few comments here that might stir you to further research.

Gender Language in the Bible: Should translations be “gender-neutral.”

This is a touchy one. Until the last few decades, the English language allowed free use of the “generic masculine.” Pronouns like “he” and “his”, and even the word “man”, could be used to refer to a person of unknown gender. In many cases a phrase like “any man” would mean, not “any adult male,” but simply “any person.”  For better or for worse, the English language has shifted, and we can no longer say “a man” when we mean “a human.” Even using “he” or “him” when a person of either gender could be in view is a real stretch in today’s English. Translations of the last few decades have found various ways to deal with issues of gendered language. In many passages the solutions are quite simple. Other passages bring more complicated issues. For two different ways of dealing with gender issues compare the preface to the ESV with the preface to the NIV. If you take the time to read these prefaces you will also find valuable perspective on how these two translations handle the two issues discussed next.

New Testament Manuscripts

The word “manuscript” means hand copy. Thus, when we talk about Greek manuscripts we are referring to handwritten copies of all or part of the New Testament. Manuscripts date from the days of the early church all the way up to the Reformation era when they were replaced by printed texts of the New Testament. Naturally, hand copied texts incorporate slightly different variations, not only in spelling and punctuation, but also in wording. Many of these variant readings cannot be translated into English and many which can be translated do not affect the sense of the passage. However, some variant readings are more significant and involve whole verses, or in two cases, paragraphs.

Today, the most common printed text of the New Testament is known alternatively as the NA28 or UBS5. This text was compiled by carefully comparing readings from the manuscripts we have, with special emphasis on the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. Almost all recent bible translations follow the basic pattern of the NA28 when it comes to which variant readings from the manuscripts they choose to follow. The one major exception is the NKJV which attempts to translate the exact manuscript readings which underlie the King James Version of 1611. The NKJV provides extensive notes, that allow readers to compare its textual basis to standard editions of the text of the Greek New Testament.

The Role of Paraphrase

I want to register a concern about translations that rely too much on paraphrases. I don’t have in mind the “functional equivalence” employed to various degrees by all translations, but rather renderings that prioritize what the translator thinks a passage means over precise attention to what it says.

Outright paraphrases like The Message, I regard as more of a commentary than a Bible, but of the translations on the chart above, I would call attention to what I regard as excessive use of paraphrase in the NLT. The approach of the NLT means that the theological beliefs of the translators seem to come through rather clearly. To illustrate, let’s compare two verses in the NIV and NLT.

Ephesians 4:30

NIV: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

NLT: And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption.

It is not hard to miss the NLT’s emphasis that true Christians cannot, ultimately, fall away from God’s salvation. To do this, the NLT pulls in wording from Ephesians 1:13-14, which is why the NLT reads so differently than other translations in this verse.

2 Peter 1:10

NIV:  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble,

NLT: So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away.

Again, theology shows through. For the translators of the NLT, confirming our calling and election does not appear to mean taking steps to safeguard ourselves from the real danger of falling away from God, but rather “proving” that we are among the elect (who God would never allow to fall away).Whether or not you agree with the theology reflected in the NLT in these two passages, I am concerned that the wording prejudges interpretation in a way that the NIV and other major translations do not. 

Summary

What should we take away from these notes on Bible translation? Sorting out the advantages and disadvantages of various versions is tricky. Most of us will naturally end up with one translation for our primary use in reading, memorizing, and teaching. The concerns I raised about paraphrases in the NLT means I can’t recommend that translation for your primary use. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the NLT in your Bible study tool kit; it can definitely be helpful. Just be aware of the issues. Don’t let the NLT (or any other translation) be the only Bible you read.

Categories
Bible Study Guides

When We Don’t Know Exactly What the Bible Says

This bible is missing verses! Differences between translations reduce our confidence in the Bible!

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken.

Preface to the KJV

Copies of the Bible Differ.

Some believers find this troubling. Some unbelievers think it shows the Bible is untrustworthy. In this study, you will look at various examples of where we don’t know exactly what the Bible says and reflect on the implications. At the end I will give you the KJV preface response to the idea that bibles shouldn’t have footnotes.

Different Differences

Single word changes can make a big difference. One early edition of the KJV infamously read:

Thou shalt commit adultery.

Exodus 20:14
  1. Is this a troubling error?
  2. Is it difficult to determine the true reading of the passage?

What about the following discrepancy? This exists between copies of the KJV and also between various modern translations.

he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: and she went into the city.

he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: and he went into the city.

Ruth 3:15-16

Scholars are unsure which reading is original. The NIV reads “he” but gives this footnote “Most Hebrew manuscripts; many Hebrew manuscripts, Vulgate and Syriac she.” The NKJV reads “she” but gives this footnote “Many Heb. mss., Syr., Vg. she; MT, LXX, Tg. he.”

  1. Does the variant change the meaning of the passage?
  2. Does it trouble you?

Here is an example showcasing a rare textual footnote in the 1611 KJV.

And when he had taried among them more then ten dayes, hee went downe vnto Cesarea,

And when he had taried among them no more then eight or ten dayes, hee went downe vnto Cesarea,

Acts 25:6 KJV and KJV margin.

The note to the 1611 KJV reads “Or as some copies reade, no more then eight or ten dayes.”

  1. True or False(defend your answer): “If the KJV translators would have chosen the reading mentioned in the margin, that would prove that they did not believe the Word of God, and the translation they produced would be a perversion of the word of God.”

A Maybe more Scary Difference

The previous examples may seem trivial, an easily recognizable typo or minor differences in the details of stories. But the last two are examples of differences in the handwritten copies of scripture (manuscripts) that have come down to us. How you answered the questions above affects how you deal with bigger discrepancies. So let’s jump to one of the biggest.

Some copies of the gospel of Mark end at 16:8 while most include another section known as 16:9-20. Since most copies include this ending section, we might conclude that the copies missing it simply did not get finished. But matters are not quite this simple. For one thing, the manuscripts lacking it are quite early and generally important witnesses to the original text, second there does a exist an alternative ending for the gospel of Mark. Somebody wrote another short passage to write up the gospel of Mark. Third, the ending passage (9-20) is clearly a different section. There is an abrupt stylistic shift from the first part of chapter 16.

Several opinions exist regarding the ending of Mark.

  • Mark originally ended abruptly at 16-8 and two different endings were attached later.
  • The original ending for Mark, was lost and two different endings were attached later (neither of which was original)
  • 9-20 is the original ending of Mark.

Among those who do not think verses 9-20 are part of the original text of Mark, there are two approaches. Some would say that verses 9-20 are not part of scripture because Mark did not write them. Others argue that they were accepted early enough and widely enough that we should treat them as part of scripture, even if they were not part of the original book of Mark.

  1. How does the uncertainty surrounding this passage affect your view of scripture?
  2. How important is figuring out the exact text of scripture in places where there are variants?
    1. Doesn’t matter unless you are a Bible translator.
    2. Of minor importance.
    3. We should do our best, but not be too worried if we are wrong.
    4. Potentially a big deal.
    5. Very important! We must know the exact text everywhere!
  3. What should we teach new believers and children about textual variations? How important is it for everyone to understand the basics of how biblical texts were transmitted?

Wisdom from the KJV Preface

Here is more of the opening quote (abridged). It comes from §16 of the preface to the KJV

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken.
But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point.
For though whatsoever things are necessary are manifest, yet for all that it cannot be dissembled ((disguised)), that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, it hath pleased God in His divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness…
Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?

KJV Preface (excerpted, emphasis mine)

Suggested Reading

Vince Beiler on the Hebrew Bible. https://anabaptistperspectives.org/series/adventures-hebrew-bible

The Translator to the Reader (KJV Preface) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)/Preface

Dan Wallace’s comments on “Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?” https://danielbwallace.com/2014/03/24/can-we-still-believe-the-bible/

Categories
Bible

New Testament “Slavery Texts” and the Gospel

{This article was originally published on the Kingdom Outpost }

Why does the New Testament tell slaves to submit to their masters? Numerous passages give advice to slaves. Some give advice to Christian slave masters. How can this fit with the gospel of the Kingdom and the proclamation of God’s righteousness?

If we hear these “slavery texts” rightly, they can offer us fresh insight regarding the upside-down kingdom of Christ and what it means to take up our own cross and experience his life. If we hear these texts rightly we will not minimize the badness of slavery; neither will we see these texts as mere accommodations to the moral blindness of the time in which they were written. We may still wonder why the New Testament church approached slavery in exactly the way they did, but it does become clear that their approach was rooted squarely in the gospel.

While it has often been distorted, the New Testament approach to dealing with slavery is simply one manifestation of how Jesus would have us approach relationships, institutions, and structures. The beautiful thing about the kingdom is that we can approach good and bad situations out of the same basic orientation of mind and heart. For example, we don’t apply hatred to enemies and love to friends; instead we extend love toward both friends and enemies. More generally, when we face evil, we overcome it with good (Romans 12:21).

Following are three dimensions of our posture toward human relationships and institutions.

  1. We identify first and foremost as God’s child and God’s slave. All other service, whether to friends or enemies must find its proper place as part of our service to him.
  2. We operate with love. This includes both proactively doing good for others and accepting the various sufferings that result from others doing evil.
  3. We trust God’s vindication, reward, and overflowing blessing both within and beyond our present life.

I believe these three points, and more, are embraced in the call to take up our cross and live a cruciform (cross-shaped) life. The New Testament approach to slavery puts a good deal of flesh on this bare outline.

The deep problem with slavery is that masters claim what only belongs to God.

Slavery is bad. Though the New Testament gives advice for dealing with slavery, it does not call it good. Slavery is often brutal; sometimes more so, sometimes less so. The material conditions of slaves vary; some are better provided for than others. But there is one constant about slavery: the slave’s labors and living arrangements are under the control of the master.  Another person holds the (legal) right to say where one goes and what one does. This level of control should not be held by another human.

To be sure, a Christian in the situation of slavery can serve God triumphantly, but the arrangement does not befit their status as a slave (servant) of God. Paul does reassure slaves that they can serve God as “a freedman of the Lord.” But he quickly adds “Do not become slaves of men.” Jesus bought us with a price. Choosing to be a slave shows a failure to appreciate that Christ is our master. Even when Paul counsels slaves not to “be concerned about” their condition, he adds a qualifier: “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23).[1]

Servants of the Lord guard their freedom to serve him without restriction.  Israel was not to allow their fellow Israelites to be sold as slaves because they were God’s servants, whom he rescued from slavery in Egypt (Leviticus 25:39-55).[2] In the letter to the Galatians, Paul enjoins us to stand firm in freedom as sons of God (rather than living as slaves or minors under the guardianship of Torah). This freedom, though, results in serving each other through love.  Peter emphasizes freedom as well, even when he is urging believers to be subject to human institutions.

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a coverup for evil, but living as slaves of God. (1 Peter 2:16)

The Master in Heaven Relativizes “masters according to the flesh.”

The New Testament proclaims that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28). Yet, various texts mention or imply that there were Christian slaveholders. Does the fact that slavery remained in the church represent a failure to live up to the teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free? Perhaps in a sense it does.[3] As we have seen, slavery is definitely not to be accepted as a good, or even neutral, thing. Slaves should avail themselves of opportunities to be free. The letter to Philemon is often seen as indirectly requesting that Onesimus be set free. However, the proclamation that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus also finds its application even when the legal institution of slavery remains in place.

In a certain sense, Christianity declares slavery irrelevant. The gospel declares that any useful work, whether done by enslaved or free Christians, will be rewarded by God. All Christians, even slave masters, have a master in heaven to whom they will give account. All, slaves included, are to be treated with justice and fairness. No one has a license to employ threats to manage other people. All should be willing to serve and provide benefits to other people. The Christian assembly and the Lord’s Supper are to embody social equality.

The term lord or master (Greek kurios) is worth digging into in this connection. Kurios was a common term for God in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.[4] Itwas a title claimed by Roman emperors. Kurios was also the word used to describe a master who had slaves.[5] Referring to Jesus as Lord thus conveys multiple resonances. Translating Kurios as “Lord” brings interesting nuances to the slavery texts. Human masters are “Lords according to the flesh” while the slaves are really “slaves of Christ.”  And ‘lords’ have a Lord in heaven who will show them no preference over those they hold as slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9). While Christian slaves should obey their earthly lords, they are really serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:22-24).  In this way the whole question of slaves and masters is reframed in light of the true Master in heaven.

The institution of slavery must not be allowed to negate brotherhood or the human value of loving service. This is why Paul can say such things as, “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.” (1 Timothy 6:2) Slavery is bad, but it does not change the fundamental reality that work is good. It is a way of serving the Lord and serving other people. Work is not first and foremost about getting paid but about getting something worthwhile done. Of course, the worker deserves a share of the benefit deriving from their work, but whether we are well or poorly compensated on earth, “whether slave or free,” we work for the love of God and for an eternal reward. I explore what slavery passages teach us about the goodness of work and how we should think about its value in “What We learn from New Testament Advice to Slaves.”

The Dinner of the Master in Heaven, or the Lord’s supper, speaks to the social status of slaves. Slaves shared with their masters not only the loaf and cup of remembrance, but the full love feast.[6] This contrasts sharply with the standard custom of slaves serving their masters food first, and only getting to eat afterward.[7] 1 Corinthians 11 severely rebukes abuses of the Lord’s supper and makes clear that the love feast is a shared meal of rich and poor. It is to be eaten together and shared among all or else the Lord’s dinner will degenerate into a bunch of private meals and make a mockery of the body of Christ.

The Way of the Cross Grows from Trust in Divine Vindication and Reward

Nowhere is the NT response to slavery more closely tied to the way of the cross than in 1 Peter. In chapters 2 and 3, Peter puts all relationships in the context of Jesus’s example. Jesus’s way is love and honor for all people even when they are unjust and evil. For the Lord’s sake we are submit to human institutions of government and empire. We honor all people. Slaves honor and submit to even harsh and violent masters without revenge or reviling just as Jesus suffered and did not seek revenge or return reviling with reviling. Jesus rather committed himself to the Father who judges justly, our Shepherd and Overseer. Peter then applies this concept to wives, especially those with unbelieving husbands. Their practice of honor and submission might even draw their husbands to “obey the word.” Husbands are to apply the principle by living with their wives in honor and understanding. Peter wraps up by describing how this mindset applies to all relationships:

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless… (1 Peter 3:8-9)

This reminds us that Christian exhortations to slaves are simply specific ways of working out the Christian approach to all of life and relations, the way of Jesus that honors all people and bears the cross without resorting to slander, violence, or threats. Slavery, as other forms of ill-treatment is a chance to identify with the cross of Christ and his suffering love.

This cross-bearing is sustained out of confidence in God. We imitate Christ who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).  We too “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (4:19). We are “guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). And, God “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” us (5:10).

Do the Epistles Reflect a Social Conservatism that Waters Down Jesus’ Prophetic Teachings?

Do slavery passages in the letters of Peter and Paul domesticate Jesus’s message and the fiery words of James and the Revelation? Paul counsels slaves to be good slaves and masters to be good masters. Doesn’t this leave the underlying unjust structures in place? Everybody is supposed to play nice, but the fundamental problem seems left in place: some people are regarded as the property of others, their function in life—this temporal life anyhow—is to make things better for their masters. Where is the message of liberation, justice, and a new society?

On the face of it, Paul’s letters seem to mark a step backward from the Torah. The Old Testament forbade outright slavery (for fellow Israelites), limited debt service to seven years, and imposed a land regime that, if followed, ensured widely distributed land ownership and prevented the rise of permanent, generational, landed and landless classes. If indeed the gospel calls for more radical righteousness than Torah, why don’t we see explicit calls for a wider distribution of capital and the elimination of slavery for all people, not just Israelites? Why don’t we at least get a blunt command: “Slave owners repent and free your slaves!” (The closest we see to that is the letter to Philemon where Paul’s indirectly worded non-command command seems to be that Philemon should free Onesimus, but the letter still acknowledges Philemon’s claims on Onesimus.)

I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer to that question. I think the slavery texts in the Epistles clearly portray a response that is thoroughly rooted in the Gospel. At the same time, it seems like blunt statements that slaveholding is, in and of itself, sinful would also fit with the Gospel. Perhaps part of the answer is that demanding immediate emancipation could do more harm than good, if master’s simply threw their slaves out to fend for themselves.  The New Testament emphasis rather places responsibility for the wellbeing and respectful treatment of slaves onto their masters. It seems to me that if masters really take responsibility for their slaves and learn to treat them with justice and fairness as brothers (eventual) emancipation is the only logical outcome.

Masters (“lords according to the flesh”) are reminded that are reminded that they too are under a Lord. He shows no partiality. The significance of this can hardly be overstated. Double standards are the norm of fallen human society. Let a master attack a slave out of rage or mess around with a slave woman and, while frowned upon, it will be generally accepted without serious consequences. Let a slave lash out physically or fool with a free woman in the house and the indignation and consequences will be severe. God makes no such distinction. Paul is keen to remind the rich of this:

Masters are to avoid threatening and to treat their slaves with justice and fairness. What does the apostle have in mind by justness and fairness? Avoiding threats and violence is surely part of what he means. So too is adequate material provision. Everyone deserves the fruit of their labor. Paul stressed this eloquently in 1 Corinthians 9. Even draft animals get to eat. Those tending cattle share the milk. Those plowing fields share the resulting crop. Workers are to enjoy the benefit, and even if Paul does not demand emancipation of slaves, he surely calls for them to enjoy the fruit of their work. The words justice and fairness call for respect toward slaves as fellow human beings and brothers in Christ. Humane treatment is not enough. Respect is required. In practice this respect should lead to clarity about what is and is not the slave’s responsibility, time off for rest and for participation in the life of the assembly, respect for slave marriages and families, and in general respect for human dignity. I believe the logical outcome is transitioning away from slavery altogether toward other arrangements for work and social and economic structure.

Some Implication Questions

How should free people respond to slavery around us or in other parts of our world? Should we, nonviolently but actively, help others escape? Should we negotiate with slaveholders to bargain for freedom? What difference does it make if slavery is illegal or legally sanctioned? I don’t have experience in working with these situations, but the question was driven home to me as I helped children in church prepare a skit based on the American underground railroad. In those stories we encounter slaves who purchased their freedom from their masters, slaves who ran away, and other people who helped them escape to safer jurisdictions. This forces a question, does Christianity commend the option to escape from slavery when such an opportunity exists? Certainly, if one has a chance to purchase his own freedom, that chance should be taken. If that is not feasible or desirable, should one run away? Should those not enslaved facilitate an (often illegal) escape? It seems we should at a minimum live up to the Old Testament standard for treating escapees. “Do not return a slave to his master if he has taken refuge with you. Let him live among you wherever he chooses, in the town of his pleasing. Do not oppress him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

Do modern free persons face situations that are analogous to slavery and call for an analogous response? Sometimes people attempt to apply advice to slaves directly to employees. “Employees be subject to your employer!”  Of course employment is (should be) quite different than slavery in that it is both better compensated and voluntary. Employment is also specific rather than all encompassing. An employee devotes himself to the employers purposes for specific hours, whereas a slavemaster lays claim to direct the slaves entire life.

One takeaway for employees is the simple point that God values and rewards all legitimate work. Another take away for employees, and all of us, is how we respond to situations where someone else gets the better end of the deal. Sometimes these are situations where we have limited options and the other party (perhaps an employer) holds all the leverage. If we have opportunity to escape from those situations to situations where we are treated with justice and fairness, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity. If we don’t have the opportunity we should still do our work out of love and service for other people and ultimately for God himself.


[1] Scripture cited  from the ESV but may be slightly adapted: for example reading “slave” where the ESV used the softer term “servant” or technical term “bondservant.”

[2] Why does Leviticus 25 allow buying non-Israelite slaves and treating them as property? I see the OT Law as the civil law of a nation, which does make concessions to human nature and prevailing mores. Torah left the institution of slavery intact but limited it by proclaiming every Israelite to belong to God.  The New Testament build on and advances the ethics of the Old Testament. The New Testament does not give a civil law for a people group but calls forth the church whose members reside within every nation.

[3] Galatians says there is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus. As regards the first pair, scripture enjoins that Jews and Greeks live in full fellowship without demanding that Greeks become Jews (or Jews become Greeks). With regard to the second pair, male and female obviously remains a significant difference, though the exact nature and extent of that difference is greatly disputed. Clearly slave and free can be equally Christian, but it seems like slave and free is a difference that should utterly disappear, unlike the difference between male and female.

[4] The Septuagint used it not only for the Hebrew word meaning Lord, but also as a euphemism for the divine name YHWH (Jehovah or Yahweh). This practice was indicated in the Hebrew manuscripts was well, and continues in many English Bibles with the use of LORD (all caps) for YHWH in the Old Testament.

[5] Additionally kurios could be used as a term of respect like our “sir.”

[6] I am glad that those potlucks which we call “Fellowship Meals” remain among Anabaptist churches. We need to recover and reemphasize the theological meaning of such meals and recover the deep connection between the love feast and the remembrance.

[7] Jesus references this practice in the parable of the unworthy servants. “Will any of you how has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” (Luke 17:7-8)

Categories
Bible

Phrasing the Bible

I love copy and paste. Even for Bible study. I enjoy “phrasing” passages in a word processor to help me visualize the structure of dense text, like that in the epistles.

I learned the most from William Mounce, who incorporates phrasing into his Graded Reader of Biblical Greek. Steven Brubaker taught me a similar approach in a class at Faith Builders.

I’ve compiled a few pointers of my own and several sample passages.

Categories
Bible

Koinonia and the Lord’s Supper

Is communion bread literally the body of Christ? Is communion simply a memorial of Christ? The Lord’s Supper is a core practice for those of us who take the name of Jesus, but we are not always sure how to understand it. Fortunately Jesus meets us in the supper, whether or not we have a correct understanding. Still, it is worth chewing on what the NT tells us about the Eucharist.

The different names we use, stress different dimensions. “Eucharist,” meaning thanksgiving, reminds us how Jesus gave thanks for food, even when it symbolized his own death. We also should give thanks in all circumstances, for God provides and God works for good. The term “Lord’s Supper” reminds us that Jesus is the host giving himself to us and for us.

“Communion” is a term worth chewing on. It derives from the Greek word koinonia, commonly translated in the New Testament as “fellowship, “participation,” or “sharing.” In 1 Corinthians 10:16-22, Paul describes the supper as a koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus. This, I suggest, helps us understand the metaphysics of communion–provides insight into how it works.

My recent essay for Essays For King Jesus by Anabaptist Perspectives explores the Lord’s supper as fellowship in the context of 1 Corinthians. You can read or listen to the full essay their.

https://anabaptistperspectives.org/the-lords-supper-as-fellowship/

Categories
Bible Business

Stewards are God’s Household Managers

Christians talk a lot about stewardship. Being stewards is indeed a biblical idea (though “managers” might be a better term, especially if modified by an adjective, e.g. “servant managers,” or “household managers.”) We know that what we are entrusted with is ultimately God’s resources.

What we may miss is that stewardship also describes our social roles in our various communities. We are stewards of God’s resources for the individuals or communities he intends those resources to bless. I explore the biblical meaning of stewardship vocabulary in this essay at Anabaptist Perspectives.

Managers in God’s Household: How to be a Steward

Kyle Stoltzfus and I discuss these ideas on a podcast with Anabaptist Perspectives:

I discuss on a Strength to Strength talk:

https://strengthtostrength.org/managers-in-gods-household/

Categories
Bible Business

Business People Are Stewards

I am not talking about how to handle profits gained through business. Of course, if you do own a business that generates large profits, that does result in responsibilities to use that money well, but here I am concerned with a different question: What does it mean to steward business giftings and abilities and to steward business roles and opportunities?

I tackled these questions in a two-part series on the Anabaptist Perspectives blog.

Part One: Business People among God’s “Servant-Managers”

Part Two: Entrepreneurs as “Servant-Managers

Both of these pieces build from the basic biblical idea that stewardship is not just about what God entrusts us with, but also about who he intends should benefit from what he entrusts to us. We manage God’s creation for his creatures—especially our human neighbors.

An earlier post at Anabaptist Perspectives gives the biblical exposition.

Managers in God’s Household

This post from the early days of the 2020 pandemic reflects on stewardship in relation to hard times. It was also recorded in audio.

Factories, Gardens, Giving, Guns: A COVID-19 Economy and Stewardship