In which I don’t understand

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

(Matthew 25:1-12, TNIV)

I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever understood this parable. In my two decades of church attendance and learning from the Bible, no one has ever explained this one to me in a way I’ll actually comprehend. I suspect that’s because the next verse tells us the meaning of it (unlike many of the parables which come with no explanation and so must be taught and explained.)

But Jesus said more than verse 13 alone, and Matthew thought this story worth including. For this reason I think it’s important that we too ensure we can understand the story, both in the way we teach it, and in our Bibles themselves.

I can’t understand this parable not because of the words it uses, but because it describes something that is so culturally foreign to me. I went to two weddings on the weekend and at one of them this passage was read out. But neither of those weddings had the slightest resemblance to this parable, other than that they both had grooms.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. For sure this is something where study bible notes would be very helpful, and this blog is about “better Bibles” and that includes study notes! But there are a lot of times when notes won’t be available; most Bibles aren’t study Bibles after all, and then there are the times when the story will be copied into something like the wedding programme I read on the weekend. So I think the Bible texts themselves need to somehow bridge this huge cultural gap.

I don’t know how to do that. But I can leave you with some of the questions I’ve been wondering:

  • Who are these virgins? And is their sexual history actually important? Should we instead be thinking of their marital state (ie, they are unaccompanied), or their young age? Some translations just say “girls”, but others say “bridesmaids.” Guys, which is it?!
  • What does the groom want with ten virgins? There should only be one virgin on his mind… his wife! If instead they are bridesmaids then why aren’t they with the bride?
  • Why are they waiting outside? What’s their role in the wedding and what obligations do they have? Why do they need to be there (outside) when the groom comes, and why do they need lamps?
  • Finally, what kind of girl would sleep outside in her prettiest wedding outfit??

ESV SB Jonah compared with 3 other study Bibles

Gary Zimmerli has just posted a review of Jonah in the ESV Study Bible. Gary uses three other study Bibles and contrasts the ESV SB with them: the NASB John MacArthur Study Bible, the NIV Study Bible, and the new NLT Study Bible.

Gary writes:

The ESV SB is of course a tour de force. It is clearly one of the very finest scholarly study Bibles available. So it was interesting to see how they treated the book of Jonah.

The introduction was, of course, excellent. It was about as detailed an introduction as I’ve ever seen, dealing not only with the author and date of the book, story overview and such, but it also went into the particular literature genre of the book, and talked about that at some length. The introductions to Jonah in the other three SBs were almost as good, but didn’t quite get into as much detail.

Although Gary praises the ESB SB, he says this of the ESV translation itself:

The ESV text, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired, in my opinion. And those of you who know me know that I’m not particularly fond of the ESV. It’s so full of archaic words and phrases, and so full of awkward word order; and the vocabulary is so archaic. You really have to do your mental calisthenics and jump through a lot of hoops. Reading the ESV can be a tiring experience, even exhausting. I don’t find it pleasant at all.

Gary ended his post:

The ESV Study Bible is just the right thing for a lot of folks. But I don’t think it will be for me. Even so, I will be recommending it.

If Copyright is Right, then how do we improve what is Left?

Under Open Scriptures, Rob makes the following thought provoking comment:

I’ve long wondered about the concept of copyrighting the Bible, as this seems to serve as a barrier to sharing the gospel. Plus since the authorship is truly of the Holy Spirit, can the work of the Holy Spirit be copywritten[sic]?

While not a lawyer and therefore not giving legal advice, Stan Gundry gives some informed insight into this issue in a comment under The production of the TNIV/NIV Bible–the Standard of Integrity.

I’ve wondered, too, about how copyright fits with a message that ultimately comes from God. For example, the whole idea of copyrighting the “original text” seems an impossible conundrum to me. If the text is understood to be quite accurate, then it captures what can’t be copyrighted–it being ancient and in the public domain. The opposite would also be true, but the text would hardly be worth anything–not being accurate. A well done analysis producing a highly accurate “original text” is at best a labor of love and an offering of worship. Perhaps the best the copyright holder may hope for is to lay claim to any errors proved out in the court of textual analysis. What can I say: may verdicts in the holder’s favor be few, but proved.

However, it seems to me that copyrighting a sacred text–a Bible–more than any other type of text, should serve the same purpose as intended by the U.S. Constitutional Copyright Clause (see the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8). Or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Progress Clause. In other words, the purpose and intent of copyright is to promote progress. If there is anything that would promote progress more fully than any other endeavor, it is the translation of the message from God. Constitutional statement or not, I think that statement stands tall and true.

That gets a bit tricky, however. Can, through progress, the Bible be made better? Can it itself be improved?

That question, worded in that way, results in a quick, and I believe accurate, answer: “No! Of course not!” μὴ γένοιτο springs to mind.

However, when we refer to the Bible, we’re really referring to a translation. And translations can be improved. And this is where it gets a bit awkward. I think it’s important to realize the original meaning hasn’t changed–μὴ γένοιτο again. And I also think it’s important, though rather obvious, to observe that a specific translation hasn’t changed. The issue is not with either of those areas. So, what’s driving the desire for improvement? The issue is we’ve changed. And change will continue.

So, what needs improved? Do we seek to unchange us? Is it somehow that we’ve decayed, become less the image of God, less able to understand heavenly things (John 3)? Do we need to go back to the “good ‘ole days?” I don’t really think so (though I disagree with the evolutionist’s presupposition that we are inherently better than we once were.) Humans are inherently the progeny of fallen Adam. And that’s the way it has been almost since the beginning of time. So, I think the focus of real improvement lies with committing to improving the translation for the intended audience?

If the audience seeks a translation which bridges a mental gap between the original language and the modern one, then a translation needs to provide more than just a resulting text. It also needs to provide tools to help the reader bring the literal nature of that bridging text more fully into clear and natural English. Otherwise the uninformed user of the text, even with the best of intentions, will falter when dealing with all the intertwined ambiguities inherent in a literal text. They need a community (a body) of helpers (I’ll talk more of this in a moment). The way through this is to provide additional tools as well as educational helps to promote the needed skill. I suggest to Bible publishers that they market integrated sets of books which meet these needs. The idea is for the user to start with a literal translation and use the provided tools, packaged together, to develop a resulting clear and natural translation in their own language.

If the audience seeks a translation which is already rendered in clear and natural language, then my questions are:

  • How does one know the rendered text is in this clear and natural language?
  • Why did the translators decide to render the original in the way they did? In other words, what’s the connection between the “clear and natural” and the “original meaning.” Can we expose that and thereby not only enable a deeper understanding, but get past the so common misunderstanding that a non-literal translation “does not ‘say’ what the Greek says.”
  • Since language changes over time, is there a way, using modern technology, to promote continuous improvement?
  • How does one balance ‘continuous improvement’ (of translations) with the ongoing need of education (by teachers).

And, furthermore, I think with both these audiences, the following questions are appropriate:

  • Should continuous, broadly represented, respectful, translation-focused discussion be the norm and therefore the real solution?
  • Should such discussion be encouraged and therefore leveraged so that it feeds into new and better Bible translations?
  • How could that be done?

In any case, nothing is ever a true barrier to sharing the gospel. It seems that God has so ordered things such that the strongest of barriers only strengthen the message all the more.

The idea of a barrier to the gospel reminds me of an old story, probably apocryphal, of Caligula interrogating a common, ordinary man that refused to recant from preaching about Jesus. As the interrogation proceeded, Caligula became ever more frustrated. In anger and in clear finality he said something like, “Do you not fear me? Do you not know I have power over your life and death? What do you say? I have spoken. My name is Caligula.”

The lowly man replied–calmly and with great poise–“You are indeed powerful, most honorable Caligula. But I have no fear. Not of you or any other. For I do not fear death. You see, I have known death and now I live. I live because of Jesus. He has spoken my name. My name is Lazarus.”

Doesn’t the resurrection speak clearly of our yet future, final improvement?

So, as I’ve worked through this complex copyright issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that the seeming incongruity of copyrighting God’s Book is not the big issue. Nor is it a fundamental one.

The real issue is how do we improve translations?

Upcoming ESV and NLT Study Bibles Review

John Hobbins has promised a full review of these two study Bibles. He gives a teaser of what we’ll be in for here: Upcoming Reviews on the ESV and NLT Study Bibles.

I have found examples of running commentary that are top-notch, such as that of David Reimer on Ezekiel (ESVSB) and that of Scot McKnight on Matthew (NLTSB). I have read essays that had me singing for their precision, clarity, and vigor, such as that by Peter Gentry on the Septuagint (ESVSB) and I don’t know who’s Introduction to the Time After the Apostles (NLTSB).

I admit that personally I’m too intimidated to do a review of any study Bible. These books are so massive and complex that any review will be superficial. Plus, a study Bible tends to show its virtues over time. One of the things I always appreciated about the NIV Study Bible is that when a question came to my mind about the text, there was consistently a note addressing that question.

About the best you can hope to do in reviewing a study Bible is giving anecdotal or hit-and-miss stories about what you liked or didn’t like. Unless, that is, you intend to take the job seriously and invest a lot of time and energy together with an open mind.

Check out John’s teaser: Upcoming Reviews on the ESV and NLT Study Bibles.