Coping with Violence in the New Testament edited by Pieter G. R. de Villiers and Jan Willem van Henten (Studies in Theology and Religion (Star) Series: Brill)
In 2000–2001 I was living in Jerusalem while working on a research project about Jewish and Christian martyrdom in antiquity. In the afternoon I often worked in the National Library, which is part of the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. Each time as I was entering or leaving the Judaica Reading Room I saw the stunning stained-glass window by Marc Chagall, which represents the well-known vision of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 2 ("They shall beat their swords into plowshares ..." Isa. 2:4). On the road home, however, driving in the direction of Ramallah, I saw slogans on the back of Palestinian minibuses with messages like "Rather dead than unfree". Several times I read interviews in the newspapers with a mother of a Palestinian, who had sacrificed his life for the Palestinian cause. I could not resist associating these mothers with the mother of the Maccabean martyrs (2 Macc. 7). While some might see these acts as violent suicides, many Palestinians regarded them as martyrdoms. It was the year in which the Second Intifada began. – from the book
Violence is present in the very heart of religion and its sacred traditions – also of Christianity and the Bible. The problem, however, is not only that violence is ingrained in the mere existence of religions with their sacred traditions. It is equally problematic to realize that the icy grip of violence on the sacred has gone unnoticed and unchallenged for a very long time. Coping with Violence in the New Testament aims to contribute to the recent scholarly debate about the interconnections between violence and monotheistic religions by analyzing the role of violence in the New Testament as well as by offering some hermeneutical perspectives on violence as it is articulated in the earliest Christian writings.
The book is edited by Pieter G. R. de Villiers, D. Th., Professor Extraordinarius of New Testament at the University of the Free State and Jan Willem van Henten, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament at the University of Amsterdam.
Should we erase the violent passages from our canon, or should we go for ‘a canon within the canon’ and link up with those passages that point to another way, Jesus' third way? As a further possibility, should we accept that violence is part of our religious and cultural tradition and try to cope with it, instead of erasing or ignoring it? The role of readers is crucial, as several contributors point out. Wink offers guidelines for contemporary readers who want to go beyond the violence reflected in biblical passages.
Chapters of Coping with Violence in the New Testament and their authors include:
PART I. INTRODUCTORY ESSAYS
PART II. CASE STUDIES
PART III. EPILOGUE
Coping with Violence in the New Testament is the result of a conference on violence in the New Testament that took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa. New Testament scholars from The Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa took part in a first joint venture during which they presented papers in Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans on this topic of special relevance to their discipline.
The epilogue by de Villiers offers some hermeneutical observations about violence in the light of the contributions to Coping with Violence in the New Testament within a wider range of publications in New Testament studies as a discipline. The debate about violence is in several respects new and underdeveloped, though it has shown progress. A major step forward in the discussion of violence was the recognition, for example, that Christianity is not merely about people who suffer violence at the hand of its persecutors, but also about Christianity itself perpetrating violence in many forms. Another significant development was the openness and the growing concern about the consequences of violent pronouncements and motifs in biblical texts and in the understanding of God's character and actions.
These two developments reflect a commendable self-critical position of researchers and an awareness of what violence, potential destruction and power games underlie seemingly innocuous language. The new awareness and openness includes the willingness to account for the darker side of the sacred texts of Christianity, and also a growing determination to break with destructive practices that are perpetrated in the name of religion and Christianity. While much has been achieved, as is clear from what has been written in Coping with Violence in the New Testament, much remains to be done, especially since violence is now perhaps one of the most serious threats to humanity and creation. The theories discussed in the volume offer a useful framework for discussion of these issues.
The People's New Testament Commentary by M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock (Westminster John Knox Press) Very readable and usable for the personal NT reader. Prominent biblical scholars M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock present this new one-volume commentary on the New Testament. Writing from the fundamental conviction that the New Testament is the people's book, Boring and Craddock examine the theological themes and messages of Scripture that speak to the life of discipleship. Their work clarifies matters of history, culture, geography, literature, and translation, enabling people to listen more carefully to the text. This unique commentary is the perfect resource for all who seek a reference tool midway between a study Bible and a multivolume commentary on the Bible.
"This work has been prepared, not especially for the learned and critical class, but for the people." Thus begins the Preface to The People's New Testament with Notes, a two-volume work published in 1889 and 1891 and still available today (in a single volume, and on the Internet), 113 years later. The author was Barton Warren Johnson, a scholar, teacher, editor, and pastor in the American religious movement called the Disciples of Christ.
Mr. Johnson's work is the ancestor of this volume. Granted, The People's New Testament with Notes was just that: a New Testament with the King James Version (1611) and the Revised Version (1881) side by side, with notes on the text at the bottom of each page. This format is now familiar to Bible students who have used The Interpreter's Bible and The New Interpreter's Bible. The present volume is not a New Testament, in that the actual text of the New Testament is not reproduced here. This work is a commentary consisting of notes on the text, with such supporting articles as were deemed by the writers to aid the reader's understanding of the New Testament text. But the absence of the printed text of the New Testament is not to imply any distance from that text, or that this is a free-standing book. The proper use of this volume calls for a good translation of the New Testament, preferably the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, open beside this commentary for ready access.
This difference notwithstanding, The People's New Testament Commentary is a true descendant of The People's New Testament with Notes. The connection lies in the word People's, and the convictions carried in that word. First, let us be clear about what is not meant by the People's commentary. The term does not imply a marketing ploy, an attempt to broaden the target group to include laity as well as clergy. There is no "target" group. Nor are "the people" invited to overhear discussions of the biblical text among scholars, picking up pieces of information as they are able. Nor have the writers added water to the wine of scholarship so that the people can handle the sometimes troubling results of research.
On the contrary, this commentary is an expression of the fundamental conviction that the New Testament is the people's book. The book and the community of faith belong together, and out of the conversation between the text and the people come the preaching, teaching, believing, and behaving of the church. The people are not being "let in" on anything; the content of the New Testament belongs to them. The aim of this commentary is to clarify matters of history, culture, geography, literature, and translation so that the people can more readily listen to the text. And the people are not being protected from the findings of research. This commentary is in the tradition of trusting the people with the best of scholarship. The new, the surprising, the disturbing do not sever the relation-ship between the community of faith and its sacred texts. In fact, listening to the text care-fully is the best antidote to superstition and unfounded claims about the Bible that the Bible itself will not support.
In this confidence, both in the New Testament and the people, this commentary is offered. If in its reading someone is prompted to explore further and more deeply, that happy condition will not mark a fault in this book, but will be taken by its writers as a high compliment. In fact, in anticipation of such a consequence, suggested additional reading can be found throughout at the appropriate places, and at the end.
We may thank God that we live in a time and place in which, if we choose to do so, we may own a copy of the Bible and read it without fear. It has not always been so. When we hold a Bible in our hands, we hold a book for which people have given their lives. Thus when we refer to the New Testament as "the church's book," we do not mean that only certain people may own and read it. The New Testament is certainly a cultural treasure; no other book has had more influence on the literature, art, and philosophy of Western civilization. It can profitably be studied from that point of view. One need not share the faith of the early Christian community that produced the New Testament in order to read its text with respect and appreciation. The Bible has become a cultural item that anyone may purchase at a bookstore or a department store, or may receive gratis from various agencies.
There is another sense, however, in which the New Testament belongs to the church, the Christian community. The word "testament" in biblical parlance is the same as the word "covenant." Thus English translations of the Bible use the terms "testament" and "covenant" interchangeably. "Old Testament" and "New Testament" mean the same as "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant" (see the title page of the New Testament in the RSV and NRSV). In the Bible, how-ever, covenant terminology does not refer to a book, but to an act binding together two parties. It is somewhat like the English word "contract," with two important differences: (1) it is used of God's covenant-making act that binds people to God and to each other in a covenant community, and (2) it is unilateral, proceeding from God's side as gift, not negotiated between equal contracting parties. In the Bible, God made a covenant with one people, Israel, for the sake of all people (Gen. 12:1–3; see on 2 Cor. 3:5–6). In the Scriptures of Israel that became the Scriptures of the early church, covenant is an event, a saving act of God, God's own gracious unilateral act that creates a mission community and calls for response, a life grounded in, oriented to, and expressing the reality of God's act.
Just as "testament" must not be defined in terms of contemporary English usage, so "new" must not be understood in terms of contemporary American culture, where "new" is a generally positive relative term and "old" tends to mean "outmoded, relatively inferior." The barrage of advertising hype for the "new and improved" version ("14 percent stronger") is not the context in which the Bible's language of newness can be understood. The Hebrew Scriptures use the language of newness in an absolute sense, as a term for God's eschatological fulfillment of the divine promises (see Isa. 43:19; 65:17; 66:22; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31). In such statements, "new" is not a relative term, but an eschatological one. The biblical concept of "newness" does not supersede the past relatively, but fulfills it absolutely. It is not the abolition of the old but its eschatological renewal. (Here and elsewhere, "eschatological" refers to the ultimate end of history, the final goal to which God is bringing the creation.)
Jeremiah, sixth-century BCE prophet of Israel, specifically pictures the eschatological fulfillment of God's purposes as making a "new covenant," i.e. the eschatological renewal of God's covenant with Israel (Jer. 31:31–34). This vocabulary is not repeated elsewhere in the Old Testament as the expression of Israel's eschatological hope, but the idea is reflected several times (see Ezek. 34:25; 36:26; 37:26; Isa. 54:10; 55:3; 61:8, and 42:6; 49:8, where the Servant is representative of the covenant). The early Christian community interpreted the event of Jesus of Nazareth as God's definitive revelatory and saving event, saw this Christ event as the fulfillment of God's purposes for the world, God's eschatological renewal of the covenant. Thus the earliest document that reports Jesus' eucharistic words presents him as speaking of his own body and blood as the expression of this "new covenant" (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
In the Bible, "New Covenant/Testament" never refers to a book. However, Christians now rightly use "New Testament" to refer to a book, a collection of documents. We understand, however, that this is only a shorthand way of saying "that collection of documents that bear authentic witness to the meaning of the Christ event, God's eschatological renewal of the covenant with Israel." The specific designation "New Testament" for Christian Scripture began to be used in the late second century, as the church began to select those documents that bore authentic witness to God's act in Christ.
From the beginning, the church had appropriated the Jewish Scriptures as its own Bible, and for two or three generations lived with these Scriptures as its only Bible (see 2 Pet. 3:15-16). When Christian writings were placed alongside them as the New Testament, these Christian writings did not become the canon for the church. The New Testament has always been a part of the Christian Bible only in combination with the Jewish Scriptures, which became the "Old Testament" counterpart to the "New Testament." In the church, these two collections of writings can never be separated from each other and interpreted independently of one another. In the church, the Old Testament has always been interpreted in the light of the Christ event; the New Testament has always been interpreted in the context of and in continuity with the Old Testament.
THE CHURCH'S BOOK
By "church" we of course do not refer to one particular denomination or adherents of one particular theology, but to the community of Christian faith through the ages and around the world. The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that it was written, selected, edited, transmitted, translated, and interpreted by the Christian community.
Written by the Church
The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that it was written by the church. The New Testament is not "Jesus' book," in the sense that he wrote it. The Christian Scriptures are thus very different from the Koran, which is "Mohammed's book," in the sense that he is responsible for its very words. While there are materials from Jesus in the New Testament, he personally wrote none of it.
The New Testament is not the "apostles' book." There is a real sense in which the New Testament as a whole is "apostolic," in that it is the authentic witness to the faith of the "one holy catholic apostolic church" of the Nicene Creed. But the documents of the New Testament do not come to us exclusively from the hands of the apostles. We cannot be sure who wrote several of the New Testament documents (see the introduction to each book). However, even if all the traditional ascriptions of authorship could be accepted as historically accurate, we still would have documents not only from the apostles Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul, but also anonymous documents (Hebrews), from Jesus' brothers who did not belong to the group of the twelve apostles (James and Jude), and from the nonapostles Mark the companion of Peter and Luke the companion of Paul. Traditionally, two Gospels have been ascribed to apostles (Matthew and John), while the other two are attributed to non-apostles.
Taken as a whole, the New Testament does not represent the product of a few brilliant individual writers, but the faith statements of the Christian community. Said theologically, the New Testament documents derive from the Spirit of God at work in the Christian community as a whole. The New Testament is the church's book because the church wrote it. "The church is the responsible author of Scripture."
Selected by the Church
The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that it has been selected by the church. Early Christianity produced much literature, much more than is included in our New Testament. We are aware of at least sixty-three documents that circulated as "Gospels" in the early church, as well as numerous "Acts," "Epistles," and "Apocalypses." This is not new or suppressed information, despite the sensationalizing claims sometimes made about the "lost books of the Bible." These documents are readily available.
The books in our New Testament were not selected by a few individuals, nor by a particular church council. In the life of the church as a whole, some books began to emerge as accepted and used in the mainstream churches. By the late second century, the Pauline letters and the four Gospels were generally accepted, but marginal documents such as 2 Peter were not generally included until the fourth century. The criteria were not authorship or date. In fact, no criteria were specified in advance. In an informal, unofficial process, the continuing Christian community heard in some documents authentic testimony to the meaning of the Christ event. These were preserved, read in the church's worship alongside the Jewish Scriptures, and finally were acknowledged to be authoritative Scripture, while other Christian writings were neglected or consciously rejected. The later bishops and councils only confirmed this; it was the church that selected the books that became our New Testament. This whole process was called canonization, and the result is the New Testament canon, the authoritative collection of documents the church acknowledges as normative for its faith and life.
Edited by the Church
The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that has been edited and arranged by the church. The books of the New Testament did not fall into their present arrangement and order by themselves. Nor is any particular individual or group responsible. Paul's letters were the first to be collected. Then collections of other letters and the Gospels were made. At first, there were different arrangements of the books, but finally the present arrangement was all but universally accepted. Though Luke and Acts are two volumes of one work (see Acts 1:1), Acts was early separated from the Gospel and placed before the Epistles, as a transition volume from the story of Jesus to the story of the church. Revelation, though not written last, was placed at the end as the fitting conclusion to the story of God's mighty acts in history. Matthew, though not writ-ten first, was placed at the beginning, so that the genealogy with which it begins served as a fitting transition from the story of Israel to the story of Jesus and the church.
The documents were originally without titles. In the process of collection and editing, the documents were given titles that may or may not represent original authorship, readership, and literary genre. Often the purpose was to designate the document as representing the apostolic faith, so apostolic titles were given. It may be that in this process different letters or letter fragments were edited together to form one document (see, e.g., introduction to 2 Corinthians). Occasionally glosses, annotations, or additions may have been added that then became part of the standard text (see, e.g., the endings of Mark; see on Mark 16:8).
The original authors did not write in chapters and verses. These markers were added later to facilitate reference. The chapter divisions made by Stephen Langdon, archbishop of Canterbury in the thirteenth century, gradually became adopted as standard. Verse divisions of the New Testament were not made until the sixteenth century, when the versification of Erasmus's Greek New Testament became generally accepted. Since the original manuscripts lacked punctuation marks, all punctuation in modern printed Bibles represents decisions made by a series of editors.
Transmitted by the Church
The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that the church has transmitted it to us. Until movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg ca. 1456, virtually all documents were copied by hand—which meant that no document of any length would be copied without deviations from the original, intentional or unintentional. No original document of any New Testament book has been preserved. This is true of all ancient writings; we have no "originals" of Plato, Aristotle, or any other ancient author. We have about 5500 manuscripts of New Testament books or fragments thereof. While most copies of the same text are very similar, no two are exactly alike. Careful scholarship, called "text criticism," is responsible for reconstructing the original text of each document. This can be done with great probability, but not with absolute certainty. There are thus numerous places in the New Testament where the interpreter must decide, on the basis of variations in the available manuscripts, what the author originally wrote (see footnotes in all modern translations of the New Testament, and comments below on, e.g., Matt. 5:25; 6:13; 21:44; Mark 7:4; Luke 22:19; John 7:53; Acts 27:37).
Translated by the Church
The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that the church has translated it for us. The New Testament was written in Koine ("common") Greek, the language understood by most of the literate population of the Hellenistic world. Koine Greek is not the native language of anyone in the contemporary world. (Modern Greek is the direct descendent of Koine Greek, but the Greek language has changed enough through the centuries that today Greek Christians need the ancient text to be translated into modern Greek in order to properly understand it.) Anyone in the twenty-first century, anyplace in the world, who wants to read the New Testament must either become an expert in Koine Greek or read a reliable translation.
Translation is not a simple task. Most words in both Greek and English have more than one meaning, and very few words in any two languages have precisely the same meaning or sets of meanings. Translation can rarely be word for word, since no two languages are structured exactly alike. More than one legitimate English translation can be made from the same Greek words and sentences.
A variety of English translations, some made to support a particular viewpoint, had already been made by the sixteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, the Church of England appointed a group of scholars to make a reliable translation of the Bible into then-contemporary English, the Elizabethan English of the age of Shakespeare. Though James I, titular head of the Church of England, had sponsored the production of the new version, it was never officially "authorized" either by the king or any ecclesiastical body. Nevertheless, the work became known as the "Authorized Version" or "King James Version" and was gradually accepted by Protestant English-speaking Christianity as simply "the" Bible. This it remained for three centuries.
While a few private translations continued to be published, it was not until the twentieth century that a large number of modern-speech English translations began to appear, sometimes sponsored by individuals or groups who were dissatisfied with the "standard" translations and wanted a translation more in line with their political or theological agenda, sometimes sponsored by publishing companies—Bible publishing is a very profitable business. Currently, at least 140 English translations and versions of the New Testament are available (sixty English translations of the whole Bible, another eighty of only the New Testament).
"Which is the best translation?"
We are happily past the time when the church had one officially approved translation, and those who introduced new translations could be burned at the stake for corrupting the faith by their innovations. These times must never return, and will not. Yet the issue remains. Can just anyone select the books he or she thinks should be in the Bible, translate them in accord with his or her own knowledge, ignorance, theology, convictions, or prejudice, and have the result accepted as "the Bible"? In a free society and a free market, is the content and wording of Scripture to be decided on popularity and advertisers' ability to sway the mass of religious readers?
We suggest four criteria for a good translation:
The translation must be based on the oldest and best manuscripts of the Bible, most of which have been rediscovered only within the last 150 years, i.e., were not available to the translators of the King James Version.
The translation must be in contemporary language. Biblical texts originally spoke in the language and idiom of their own time. As the English language changes, biblical translations must also change to preserve the ancient meaning in con-temporary language, so that modern readers of English may understand the original Greek texts as they were understood by their contemporaries.
The translation must be made by a commit-tee commissioned for that purpose. No one person knows enough, or is unbiased enough, to translate the Bible adequately for the whole church. A large committee, qualified in the biblical languages and their interpretation, representing a variety of cultural settings and theological streams, will tend to cancel out individual and denominational biases and produce a translation representing the best insight into the meaning of Scripture for the whole church.
The translation must not be an individual or commercial enterprise, but must be sponsored by the church. While it is and must remain legal to translate and publish Bibles as any individual or group sees fit, the Bible belongs to the community of faith as its Scripture. The church as a whole must have a definitive say in what counts for "Bible" and what does not. Yet the worldwide church is not structured in such a way as to "authorize" Bibles for all Christians. No group or individual can presently speak for all English-speaking Christians. All translations and versions are someplace on the spectrum between purely individual translations and translations that are universally and officially approved by the church. There are purely individual translations, but no version of the Bible is officially approved by the whole church. Yet there are representative groups in various denominations and councils of churches that are ecumenically oriented and have the interests of the whole church at heart. Sponsorship by such groups is important in legitimizing any translation or version. Among those that meet these criteria are the following:
NRSV—The New Revised Standard Version (1989). This is the revision of the Revised Standard Version (1946), which was a revision of the Authorized Version (1611). The NRSV is produced by American "mainstream" Protestantism with an ecumenical orientation. In our opinion, this is the best single translation available today. While we have used a large number of translations in this commentary, it is based principally on the NRSV, with frequent reference to the NIV.
NAB—The New American Bible (1986). This is an American Roman Catholic translation with an ecumenical orientation. (The NAB is to be distinguished from the New American Standard Bible (1960), a private commercial translation widely used in the evangelical community)
REB—The Revised English Bible (1989), representing British Protestantism with an ecumenical orientation.
NJB—The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), a revision of the Jerusalem Bible, representing British Roman Catholicism with an ecumenical orientation.
Though representing commercial and institutional interests lacking in "official" church sponsorship, some other modem translations meet some of these criteria and can be commended:
NIV—The New International Version (1973), copyrighted and published by one publisher, translated by a representative committee of mostly North American evangelical scholars. We refer to it often in the comments of this volume.
TNIV—Today's New International Version (2002), an updated version of the NIV, differing from it principally by adopting gender-inclusive language.
CEV—Contemporary English Version (1995), a modem-speech translation published by the American Bible Society.
Interpreted by the Church
The New Testament is the church's book in the sense that the church interprets it for us and with us. Christians of all denominations are today encouraged to read the Bible for themselves, to encounter the Word of God that comes through these texts, to appropriate its meaning for their own lives on the basis of their personal engagement with the text of Scripture. Thus, when we affirm that the church interprets the Bible for and with us, we do not mean the acceptance of canned interpretations from church officials or the repetition of church dogmas and traditions as a substitute for 'one's personal reading, study, and reflection on the meaning of the biblical text. We have called our volume the "People's Commentary" because we believe the "common" people of the church—the laity, the people of God—are able and authorized to study the Bible on their own.
And yet, no reading occurs in a vacuum. Many biblical texts can have a variety of meanings, depending on their context. "Context" means not only literary context, but community setting. The twenty-seven documents of the New Testament were written from within the early Christian community, confessing, correcting, and nourishing its own faith. In this sense the New Testament is not the individual's book, not the book of society and culture at large, but the church's book. In this sense, the collection of documents is more like a family album than a rulebook or manual. As the church has moved through history, it has continued to cherish this book, to study it, to sort out Valid and helpful interpretations from the perverse, misleading, and merely irrelevant. The church as the community of faith continues to embody this living tradition of dialogue with these sacred texts. We have attempted to distill some of that tradition and dialogue into this commentary, to facilitate the ongoing study of the New Testament within the life of the Christian community. We must study and interpret the Bible for ourselves; we must not do it by ourselves. The New Testament is the church's book.
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