When you come together, each of you has … an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14.26)
Problem: You’re a busy Bible class teacher or preacher who wants to brush up on some of the latest understanding of scholarship as to what life was like in New Testament times, but don’t have the time to wade through a host of journal articles or academic-style works. You demand quality scholarship, but footnotes be gone.
Solution: Make A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington a part of your evening reading for a couple of weeks.
Problem: You’re looking for something that has a fresh, unique approach to it to use as the foundation for a Bible class study. It wouldn’t hurt to have a couple of dozen pictures in it, either.
Solution: Utilize A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington as a resource the next time you work through 1 & 2 Corinthians.
Problem: You wish fellow church members understood more of the background of life as depicted in the New Testament so they would have a better grasp of how to understand and interpret Scripture. The thing is, you know they’d never even crack open a book about historical backgrounds and the Bible. What to do?
Solution: Suggest they read A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington and give away a couple of copies to key people whom you know to be book lovers.
Problem: You’d like to turn your teen onto reading Christian books. The thing is, you don’t know what to get, you just know whatever it is simply must have short, page-turning chapters in it or it’ll never get read.
Solution: Get them a copy of A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington and leave it in their room without comment.
Problem: You’d like to see the ladies book club at the church of which you’re a part read something besides the standard fare of typical “Christian” fiction. And it can’t be long either; no more than 160 pages.
Solution: Suggest reading A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington whenever it comes your turn to suggest the next book for the group to read.
Problem: You’re a parent who home-schools your children and you’re always on the look out for interesting, reliable, and accessible resources to supplement your work. You use your imagination and creativity as a home-schooler and you like works that give evidence of the same.
Solution: Add reading A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington to your curriculum.
Problem: You’ve read Bruce Longenecker’s work The Lost Letters of Pergamum and it left you longing for more of similar material and approach.
Solution: Quit fiddling around and read A Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington right now.
Have you ever witnessed someone attempt to translate or interpret one language into another? It’s a telling sight, isn’t it? No matter how fluent the interpreter, one thing becomes quickly obvious to all who are witnessing the work: a great many words simply don’t have a one-to-one correspondence in meaning in another language. After all, we’re not talking about number here, but words.
Consequently, what might be conveyed well in one language by a single word might require several words in another language. Similarly, what is said in the language being rendered might legitimately be communicated several different ways in the receiving language. The danger, of course, in all translation from one language to another, is that something can (and will) be lost in translation. A nuance of meaning might unintentionally be slighted, stressed, or over-looked. The meaning a word has in one context could accidentally be substituted for its meaning in another (a great many words have two or more meanings). Etc.
All of this is obvious when watching two people converse to each other through means of an interpreter. The interpreter – a qualified and adept one, at any rate – will regularly be forced to hesitate or pause as they consider all the possibilities open to them for translation. Choices must be made and those choices frequently demand something on the order of “compromise” in the off-loading of all the freight a word carries in one language onto the word(s) of another. The person receiving the translation – a thoughtful and honest one, at any rate – will always bear this in mind and will allow for a bit of “play” in what they’re receiving. They know better than to expect everything to be perfect or “tight” because if for no other reason, there is that common lack of one-to-one correspondence in words, etc.
Now if the translation work is being done between living people and a question arises as to how best to render something, the translator need only pause and ask the person being interpreted to run that by the translator again, rewording the matter. In that rewording, the translator receives a fuller understanding of the meaning that was intended to be conveyed. Often, it’s in this second shot at grasping what was meant that the light bulb turns on in the translator’s mind and they’re then enabled to offer an interpretation.
However, the work is much more difficult if the translation is not between living people in immediate contact with each other and where query, exchange, and clarification can take place. Let’s suppose that in place of a conversation between two people and an interpreter we have instead one person reading the writing of another in a different language. If there’s a question as to meaning or if clarification is longed for, that’s just too bad, for the one who wrote the material is not available to ask. The interpreter will simply have to do the best they can with the knowledge they have within themselves or available to them from others, but not the original author. Naturally, the translator – a good one, of course – will likely come close to capturing the intended meaning, but there will, of necessity, be some loose ends, as it were.
Now let’s compound the matter even a bit further. Let’s say the translator is not only working to interpret a written piece in a foreign language and the author is not available for contact, but that which was written was penned numerous centuries ago, in an entirely different culture, and coming from a totally different world view. Further, the language used is now a “dead” one, that is, it has not been written or spoken by a people for many centuries. Perhaps needless to say, but say it we will, such a translator’s task just increased in difficulty exponentially.
Now with all of that in mind, I say all of that in order to say this: it’s precisely in this last scenario in which we find seated those who serve as translators of the the writings we’ve come to know as the Bible. Their work is not at all easy. Put several of such scholars in a room together working to translate the same portion of text and quite often several different views as to what would be the best way to “say it” will come forth. On occasion, they will not even be able to come to total agreement as to what was intended by the original author, much less on how to best convey it, for interpretation is inherent to translation, you see.
This leads us to make three observations:
1. We all owe those who translate the Scriptures an tremendous debt. Thank God for the work of Bible translators everywhere!
2. Our understanding of the Biblical languages grows as time goes by. Since we cannot ask the original writers what they meant, we stand on the work of scholars who have studied these languages and each generation that follows has carried our understanding forward just a bit. This knowledge dramatically increased not only in terms of the base with the discovery numerous manuscripts in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also took off in terms of speed with the advent of the computer.
3. Students of the Bible do well to compare quality translations with each other and learn not just from one, but from them all. This is something nearly any English-reader of the Bible can do with ease for their are a number of good translations available. And in light of preceding point (2), we would only needlessly and greatly handicap and hinder ourselves by limiting our reading and study to translations that were created decades, perhaps even centuries, ago.
Imagine, for example, what an uproar there would be, and rightly so, if suddenly your children’s school decided to use only American history and science textbooks written one hundred years ago! Such would be unthinkable, but when it comes to Bible study, many readers of the word of God limit their encounter with Scripture to translations produced several decades, a full century, or perhaps even several centuries ago. We can do better and the best place to start would be with (1): thank God for the work of Bible translators, including, and especially, those of modern times!
Starting tomorrow, I want to lead by example, as it were and at the same time, do a bit of your homework for you. I’ll do this by comparing several of the texts of the New Testament directly related to the work of elders, laying the wording of several translations alongside each other, without comment, for easy comparison. In that comparison, you’ll notice both continuity and variety, giving evidence of, in the receiving translation (English) of different possibilities or wording (synonyms), nuances (shades of meaning), development (increased understanding of the original text), and adaptability (replacing words that have changed their meaning or dropped out of use with current and contemporary terms).
We’ll begin, in tomorrow’s post, with the best known texts: 1 Timothy 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9. After that we’ll take a look at texts not as well known or as frequently consulted (1 Timothy 5.17-22, 1 Peter 5.1-4, etc.).
When a church considers appointing individuals to serve as elders, another important question needs to be asked: is their family life healthy?
Two texts are foundational for the asking of this question:
… the church’s supervisor … should be faithful to their spouse … They should manage their own household well—they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church? (1 Timothy 3.2a,4-5 CEB)
Elders should be … faithful to their spouse, and have faithful children who can’t be accused of self-indulgence or rebelliousness. (Titus 1.6 CEB)
These two texts can be outlined as addressing three questions:
a. Are they faithful to their spouse; that is, are they a one-woman man? – 1 Tim. 3.2; Titus 1.6
b. Do they manage their household well, fostering respect and obedience in the lives of their children? – 1 Tim. 3.4-5
c. Are their children faithful, not self-indulgent or rebellious? – Titus 1.6
The second (b) and third (c) questions are essentially synonymous, being attempts to gauge just how good of a manager the candidate has been thus far in life of those under his closest care. Today we’ll make ourselves content with considering (a), what it means for a candidate for elder to be faithful to their spouse. We’ll take a look at the matter of children in tomorrow’s post.
The Greek text underlying the Common English Bible’s translation “faithful to their spouse” is identical in 1 Timothy and Titus: mias gynaikos aner. This Greek phrase is open to several different possibilities of interpretation. Luke Timothy Johnson has stated the matter with clarity and conciseness:
“The phrase mias gynaikos aner (literally ‘a man of one woman’) is capable of several meanings. It could mean that the man was married once and, if widowed, did not remarry. It could mean monogamous rather than polygamous. It could mean faithful to a wife and without a mistress. It could also be taken as prescribing a married overseer rather than a celibate one. All these definitions are possible. … Preceded as it is by the adjective ‘blameless’,” the main point of the requirement would seem to be first the avoidance of any appearance of immorality.” (The First & Second Letters to Timothy, pp.213-214)
Now we must remind ourselves once more: Paul’s lists (1 Timothy 3.1-7 & Titus 1.5-9) are a product of the environment in which they were formed. Polygamy was common in the ancient world, particularly among the dominant, Gentile population in which Timothy (in Ephesus) and Titus (in Crete), the addressees of Paul’s letters, made their ministry.
And all the more specific to the environment to which Paul wrote was the matter of those who opposed Timothy and Titus’ ministry. Much of Paul’s instruction for what Timothy and Titus were to do (in regard to elders as well as other matters) was shaped by what their opponents were doing. Paul wasn’t writing to make matters vague or unclear Timothy or Titus, rather he was writing specifically to help clear up any potential murkiness in their minds that Timothy and Titus’ opponents may have been able to plant in their minds (or the minds of others) concerning family life. Paul’s directions to appoint elders who were “committed to one woman” is certainly sharpened by the recollection that some of Timothy and Titus’ opponents advocated (and likely were given to the personal practice of) two very different perspectives: prohibiting marriage altogether (1 Timothy 4.3) and the seduction of women (2 Timothy 3.6).
In light of these considerations, it seems clear that by saying someone fit to serve as an elder must be a “one woman man,” Paul was simply pointing a godly way between the ditches of enforced celibacy and polygamy. Given the context of his letters, he need not be construed as indicating any more than that to Timothy and Titus. Celibacy is a gift few receive (1 Corinthians 7.1-7) and so it would be wrong to make it a requirement for all believers to be celibate (as did some of Timothy and Titus’ opponents). Equally mistaken would be the opponents’ view that a Christian could be acceptable and maturing in God’s sight while living a life of immorality. Paul would certainly have none of either of those views and so, he wrote to steer his understudies, Timothy and Titus, around those moral potholes.
So where does that leave us today in terms of application? It would mean, among other matters, that we should not appoint as an elder anyone who frowns on marriage. Likewise, we should avoid appointing anyone to a church’s eldership who, if married, is not faithful to their mate due to their being engaged in sexual immorality with others or is committed to multiple, simultaneous marriages. If married, their relationship with their spouse should be on the trajectory of building faith in each other, not breaking faith with each other.
On a final note, we must consider whether Paul’s statement regarding being faithful to one’s spouse of necessity implies that a person who serves as an elder must be married and that if their marriage ends (be it due to death, divorce, or whatever reason) they should step-aside from that capacity. If we view the list of qualifications from a legalistic perspective (i.e. – “the checklist”) and ignore the general context of the lists, the answer would be “Yes, a person must indeed be married to serve as an elder and once they cease to be married, they are no longer qualified.” However, if we view Paul’s lists in the context of their time and as functioning more like a painting than a legal contract, the answer would be “No, the absence of marriage is not a deal-breaker for a candidate.”
This matter in Paul’s lists has been a thorny issue for ages and so, as is the case anywhere in Scripture where two or more legitimate interpretations of Scripture can be seen, individuals, as well as congregations, will have to follow their conscience when it comes to application. However, let it be noted that conscience must be founded on the basis of Scripture, not tradition. We must not be more restrictive than Scripture allows anymore than we dare to be more flexible than Scripture restrains. At times, this is an exceedingly difficult road to walk.
As for myself, in terms of modern day application, I believe a well-known minister, author, and elder of years gone by within the heritage of Churches of Christ, David Lipscomb, interpreted Paul’s directive here in 1 Timothy 3.2 and Titus 1.6 quite well when he wrote:
“We believe an unmarried or childless man, if otherwise qualified, may be a bishop or a deacon. I think where the Scripture says ‘the husband of one wife’ it means he must have but one wife and be true to her.” (David Lipscomb, Questions Answered By Lipscomb & Sewell, p.204)