Advent Week 1: Waiting for the Messiah

advent-first-candleN.T. (Tom) Wright has blessed the Christian community with his prodigious speaking schedule and his voluminous library of writings. (See this summary of his teachings.) His reputation and credibility are enhanced by having a career marked by ministry assignments beyond the walls of academia. Most prominently, Wright served as the Anglican Bishop of Durham, 2003-2010. The diocese of Durham is not an enclave of wealth or privilege, but a gritty industrial area with a host of social problems. Wright plunged into this post with energy and hope, always seeking to minister in the name of Christ.

Wright is primarily a Pauline scholar, but has more than bridged the gap between those who study Paul and those who study the Gospels. Paul points to Jesus for Wright, not the other way around as in much of Evangelical theology. We should note, however, that Wright is also a keen student of history and of cultural context for the writings of the Bible.

How would Wright understand the situation in Palestine at the time leading up to the birth of Jesus the Messiah? His writings speak of this from different angles, but the most helpful for me is a set of five questions and answers. As we prepare for our celebration of the birth of our Lord, our Savior Jesus the Christ, let us review how the Jews of Jesus’ day viewed their situation at the time of his birth. How would a common Jew (such as Joseph or Mary) understand their position in the flow of history? Here are Wright’s Q & A’s:

  1. Who are we?

“We are Israel, the chosen people of the Creator God.”

  1. Where are we?

“We are in the Holy Land focused on the temple, but paradoxically we are in a sense still in exile, still outsiders in our own land.”

  1. What is wrong?

“We have the wrong rulers; pagans on the one hand (Romans), compromised or half-breed Jews (the Herodians) on the other. We are all involved in a less than perfect situation.”

  1. What is the solution?

“Our God must act to give us all the proper sort of rule again, God’s own rule through a priest or a king or both, and in the meanwhile Israel must be faithful to the covenant.”

  1. What time is it?

“It is the eve of the Day of the Lord, the dramatic deliverance of the God of Israel.”

That last one gives me chills whenever I read it. How often do we ask, “What time is it?” regarding our position in history? If we believe that God is the Lord of history, how is he moving and orchestrating right now?

The prophets of Israel had long held out the promise of the Day of the Lord for the people of God. Zephaniah thundered:

The great day of the Lord is near—
near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.

This was the much-anticipated future time when the people of Israel would be rescued from their foreign oppressors and restored to a preeminent position among the nations of the earth. It was a day when the wicked would no longer prosper and the righteous would no longer suffer. It was a day when the faithful would be rewarded for their generational waiting for the Lord to act on their behalf. It was the ultimate eschatological point in the future.

Do we consider the advent of the Messiah to be the Day of the Lord? No, it is not that simple. We live in a world that gives evidence to a great amount of unfinished business for God. Wickedness goes unpunished. The poor are forgotten or crushed. The people of God worry more about their prosperity than their service.

Yet then, as now, there is a great cause for hope. The advent of the Messiah was God’s bullhorn message, “I have not forgotten you! I keep my promises! I want you as my people! My Son is King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” This message still rings today. Christmas is our yearly reminder of God’s love for us, God’s plan for us, and God’s reign over us.

Prayer: Lord, this week, may I pause frequently to remember your providence and plan for me as part of your people. Thank you for Christmas and what it means to your world. May we cut through Christmas clutter to remember you and honor you this week. In the Savior’s name we pray, AMEN.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Views expressed are those of the author, not his employer

The Name of God, Part 3

tetragrammatonWhen did the divine name of God, the tetragrammaton, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, begin to be avoided in speaking Scripture? When did Jewish people choose to lose the “transparent” meaning of the name (יהוה= YHWH = “I am”) in favor of a seemingly more respectful word substitute (אדני = Adonai = “my Lord”).

We left our discussion in 3rd century BC Alexandria, during the great project to render the recognized books of Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language being used by the Jews of that city. Although the dating and even the scope of this project may be somewhat uncertain, the general result is the Greek Old Testament we call the Septuagint, abbreviated as the LXX. The LXX was the primary Bible of the early church in the first century, becoming even more so as Greek-speaking Gentiles enter the church.

The LXX translators chose to transliterate Hebrew names rather than translate them. Thus רעואל = Ραγουηλ = Reuel, not the translated meaning of “friend of God” (Exodus 2:18). But the LXX translators chose not to do this for the divine name, יהוה, YHWH, instead using the circumlocuted translation of אדני, Adonai. In Greek, this is κύριος (or ὁ κύριος) = kurios = Lord. Why not transliterate יהוה as was done with the rest of the Hebrew names?

One reason is that YHWH is not easily rendered into Greek, since the language has no equivalent for the Hebrew yod (“y”) or the Hebrew waw (“w”), nor is it normal to have internal “h” sounds in Greek (Hebrew he). Thus all the letters of YHWH pose challenges for transliterators. However, other difficult Hebrew names are transliterated anyway. Judah (יהודה) is nearly the same name as Yahweh as far as spelling goes, having only the additional letter of dalet (“d”). The LXX renders this name as ιουδα. There are traditions of transliteration of the divine name in some ancient Greek versions as ιαβε (Yabe or Yave) or ιαω (Yao), but these are rare and inconsistent.

The second reason is that the translators of the LXX and their community had already ceased speaking the divine name aloud. By the 3rd century BC, the Jews of Alexandria avoided saying YHWH. It made sense to them to offer a Greek translation suitable for reading in public, therefore they chose to write what they would say, κύριος = kurios = Lord. By the 1st century AD (the Christian era), consensus seems to be for Jewish Scriptures in Greek that κύριος was the appropriate equivalent for the divine name.

As I said in the first of these blogs, transliteration is the source of all sorts of mischief. In this case, a word substitution also has unique issues. Foremost among these are the various meanings of κύριος, even in the New Testament. Let me offer three:

  1. Sometimes κύριος is used as a title of respect, something like our use of “Sir” or “Madam.” This is surely what the Jewish leaders mean when they address the Roman governor, Pilate, as κύριος, not that he is a divine being (Matthew 28:63). This is also the intended meaning in the address of Jesus as “Sir” by the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:11). At this point in the story, she has no idea that Jesus is God in flesh.
  2. The word κύριος is also used to define the superior party in the master/slave relationship so common in the ancient world. The slave in the parable of the great dinner feast addresses his master as κύριος and this is not a recognition of his deity (Luke 14:11). κύριος is also the master of a slave in Paul’s advice to slaves in Ephesians 6. Paul goes so far as to distinguish these κύριοι as the “earthly masters,” literally “masters according to the flesh” (τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις).
  3. The third use perhaps embraces #1 and #2 in some ways, but is the frequent title for God the Father, the Lord. In this, it is the dynamic equivalent of the Hebrew יהוה= YHWH. This is clearly seen in quotations from the LXX where we would expect to see κύριος (e.g., Acts 2:25). We also find examples in which κύριος is used in the Greek Old Testament sense to refer to the divine name (see Hebrews 12:6, James 3:9). This is especially seen in references to the “angel of the Lord” = the messenger of YHWH (Matthew 1:20, 28:2, compare Genesis 16:7).
  4. I know I said there were three usages, but let me offer a fourth closely related to the third, the term κύριος attached to the name Jesus or Jesus Christ. This is a favorite expression of Paul, occurring 48x by my count in the letters of Paul (e.g., Romans 16:20, 1 Corinthians 15:57, Philippians 3:20). Does Paul use κύριος in these instances in the sense of “master” or “divine one.” Probably both, as in St. Francis’s use: “O Divine Master …”

So how should we render into English the Hebrew Bible’s יהוה= YHWH, the LXX’s κύριος, or the NT’s κύριος? Are we bound by the traditions of the ancient Jews concerning the divine name, or even by the traditions of the early church?

I believe this was settled by us by the New Testament authors’ choice to use the word κύριος to refer to God in the YHWH sense. We should translate this as “Lord.” Admittedly, this can be confusing, but to import Yahweh into the New Testament makes no sense to me, nor does a transliteration such as kurios or kyrios.

Furthermore, the transliteration of יהוה to Yahweh in the Old Testament makes little sense to me as a Christian. Translation intends to communicate. Transliteration tends to obscure.

Therefore, I prefer one of two options for the Old Testament:

  1. Follow the ancient tradition of the Adonai circumlocution and render it as “the LORD.” Indicate that this comes from the Hebrew word יהוה by using all capital letters. This is the choice of most English translations.
  2. Try to translate יהוה into English. “I am” is a possibility here, but seems impersonal to me. This reminds me a little of the “celebrity” who calls himself “The Situation.” I think we can do better than that. One possibility is found in the recent translation/production from Thomas Nelson, The Voice Bible. It renders יהוה/YHWH as “The Eternal” or “The Eternal One.” This seems to me to be getting at the idea behind the “I am” or the “I am Who I am.”

Thus at Exodus 3:15 in The Voice Bible:

This is what you are to tell Israel’s people: “The Eternal, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is the One who has sent me to you.” This is My name forevermore, and this is the name by which all future generations shall remember Me.

Or at Psalm 1:1:

O Eternal, our Lord,
Your majestic name is heard throughout the earth;
Your magnificent glory shines far above the skies.

Maybe not 100% satisfying, but better, I think, than יהוה = Yahweh. Even better than יהוה = the LORD.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Name of God, Part 2

%d7%99%d7%94%d7%95%d7%94In the previous blog, I tried to show that names in most languages have easily determined meaning, what we call “transparent” meaning. Determining the meaning can be tricky, however. Consider the name “Frank.” This originally meant one from the nation of the Franks = Frenchman. If we are historians, we may recognize this, but the more common meaning of “frank” is to be honest, to be open, to be direct. This does not make the meaning of the name “Frank” to be “Honest One,” however. It doesn’t work that way and the search for a name’s meaning can go down the wrong path if we are not careful.

Nicknames are more reliably transparent. By a “nickname,” I mean an acquired name other than the birth name given to a child by parents. For example, there was a man in my church when I was growing up named “Shorty.” I didn’t realize until I was in junior high that his real name was “Glenwood.” But guess what? He was pretty short. The nickname was both transparent and fitting.

The Hebrew name for God (יהוה= YHWH) has a long history in translation before it gets to us. I would not characterize it as a nickname, but it is not a “given” name either in the sense of having been bestowed by parents. We could say it is a given name given by God to himself, but it is more than this. It is a name with meaning and therefore is a way of God revealing himself to us. As my teacher, Carl F. H. Henry emphasized, God is a self-revealing God who tells us about himself. We only know things about God he has chosen to reveal. No hacked emails. No private recordings released. We know no more about God than what he reveals to us (humanity) about himself.

A tradition arose among ancient Jews that avoided speaking the divine name. The origins of this practice are somewhat murky and disputed, but a common explanation for it today is that such non-speaking is the ultimate cautionary practice to avoid violating the third commandment. If we are to respect the Lord’s name by never taking it in vain (Exodus 20:7), we show ultimate respect by never uttering it at all. (See this explanation by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.) Instead, a Jewish person who follows this avoidance tradition will substitute a term like Adonai (אדני) which means “my Lord” (see Exodus 4:10). How ancient is this practice?

In the 3rd century BC, beginning about 250 BC, the Jews of the great city of Alexandria began a project to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The result was the Greek Old Testament, commonly called the Septuagint and given the shorthand designation of the LXX. This is not the place to rehearse or dispute all the historical questions concerning the project, but taking a big picture view of the results shows us three things:

  1. The project itself is called into being by the needs of the Jewish community of Alexandria. Remember, Alexandria, while in Egypt, is largely a Greek city, founded by Alexander the Great. The language of the community was Hellenistic Greek, a living tongue that was evolving at this time. The Jewish community in Alexandria, perhaps as many as 100,000 people, needed Scriptures in the language they read, wrote, and spoke, and this was not Hebrew. Scripture in Greek was a practical necessity for the synagogues of Alexandria and other Greek-speaking cities with Jewish communities.
  2. Any sense of “inspiration” attached to the books of the Hebrew Scriptures was understood to be transferred to this new version in a different language. Christians are especially aware of this because the Christian New Testament authors, writing in Greek, primarily use the LXX for their quotations of Scripture.
  3. When it comes to translating names, those who produced the LXX chose transliteration over translation. So, “Daniel” in Hebrew (דניאל) becomes “Daniel” (Δανιήλ) in the Greek version.

What about the divine name, the tetragrammaton (יהוה= YHWH)? Stay tuned for the next blog to discuss this.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

This blog does not reflect official views of the University, only opinions of the author.

The Name of God: Part 1

burning-bush-stained-glassNames have meaning. Here, I don’t mean sentimental attachment, although this can certainly be true. I mean that most names are related to other words within a language. Their background is often transparent, meaning it is obvious to those who take time to notice.

What we consider to be a family name or surname will have a background. This can be easily seen in a whole group of English names that refer to occupations. Here are a few examples: Carter, Fisher, Baker, Draper, Butcher, Painter, Waterman, Cook, Fletcher, Driver, Weaver, Smith, Potter, Miller, Gardener, Tanner, and Shepherd. (I’m sure you can think of many more). We rarely think of this transparent meaning with these names. President Carter was never evaluated on the basis of his name referring to the occupation of carting goods from one location to another.

Bible names also have meaning. They are often descriptive, a little more like Native American names: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Black Elk, Standing Bear. Such names might be given as part of manhood rites and involve visionary experiences, but they are easily decipherable for us. So it was with biblical names, particularly in the Old Testament.

A small knowledge of Hebrew helps here. For example, any Bible name ending in -el refers to God, because the word “El” (אל) in Hebrew means “god” or “God.” (Just as in English, context determines whether this is the God or a god, although Hebrew has no system of capitalization to help us.) Therefore, Samuel (שמואל) means “name is God” or “his name is God.” This is a declaration of allegiance to the God of Israel, the answer to a question. Whom do you serve? His name is God. In the context of the story of Samuel’s birth, it is also an answer from his mother, Hannah, as to whom has heard her prayers for a child: his name is God. Similarly, Daniel (דנאל) means “God (אל) is my Judge,” Ishmael (ישמעאל) means “God (אל) hears,” Uriel (אוריאל) means “My light is God (אל),” etc.

Those of you who have followed my blog know that when it comes to translation practice, I generally abhor transliteration. Transliteration is the abdication of the responsibility of the translator to render a word in the source text’s language into a word in the target language. It is the source of endless mischief in theological work based on translated texts. The famous example from my church tradition is the Greek word baptizo (βαπτίζω). In Greek, this is an unambiguous word that means “dunk” or “immerse.” If we translated it in Acts 2:38, we would have “repent and be immersed …” and all controversies over the mode of baptism would be resolved (maybe). But transliterating it as baptize obscures its meaning. In effect, this creates a new word in English, and such a word is disconnected from the original Greek word by English speakers. New words take on a life of their own and meanings may change, so the English word “baptize” may take on meanings the Greek word baptizo does not have. Such is the danger of transliteration, a cowardly type of translation practice in many cases.

This brings us to consider the divine name of God used in the Hebrew Bible. In the dramatic encounter between Moses and the Lord in the burning bush, God reveals his personal name to Moses in three ways. When Moses questions the Lord as to what name he should use for him when he confronts the elders of Israel, the Lord first says אהיה אשׁר אהיה (ʾHYH ʾŠR ʾHYH), which translates as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Later in the same verse, the Lord reduces this name to just  אהיה (ʾHYH), translated “I am.” The third variation follows immediately in Exodus 3:15: יהוה (YHWH), perhaps translated as “The One who is.”

These three variations must be taken together. The first two use the Hebrew verb for “being” (היה = HYH) with a first person singular form, thus meaning “I am.” In this context, we are intended to see the third variation (יהוה= YHWH) as more than a simple verbal form. It is a proper noun, a name, based on this Hebrew verb. But like the English names Smith or Carter, it is transparent to a Hebrew speaker and means “The One who is.” Why is this important? Because the first two are never used as a personal name for the Lord elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The verbal form אהיה (ʾHYH) is used many times, often in connection to God. Two frequent examples are when the Lord assures someone “I will be with you” (e.g., Judges 6:16) and when God affirms the promise “I will be their God” (e.g., Ezekiel 11:20). But bald “I am” is not used as a name for God again.

So we are left with the third variation (יהוה= YHWH), which occurs over 5,000 times in the Hebrew Bible, the revealed and designated personal name of the God of Israel. How should we translate this word?

Stayed tuned for part two.