A Touchable Jesus

March 24, 2017

Jesus’ encounter with Mary after his resurrection is perplexing to some readers (see John 20:17). The King James Version reads: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” Yet Matthew 28:9 reads: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him” (Matthew 28:9, KJV). And later, Jesus instructs Thomas to touch him (John 20:27).

This has given rise to a speculative interpretation that seeks an explanation in the reason given in John 20:17, and so proposes an ascension to the Father before the ascension recorded in Acts. Something happens in this “first” trip to heaven that allows him to be touched later. However, this speculation is unneeded.

Several problems exist with this speculative interpretation of John 20:17. First, “touch me not” doesn’t necessarily imply that Mary has not touched Jesus. Sometimes we say “don’t touch me” after being touched. Even beginning with the KJV reading, I think this interpretation starts with an unwarranted assumption.

Second, “touch me not” renders a Greek verb that is present imperative (a command in the present tense). Prohibitions in the present imperative often convey the idea of stopping an activity in progress.* Several translations try to convey this idea:

  • Do not cling to me… ESV
  • Stop clinging to Me … NASB
  • Do not hold on to me… NIV
  • Do not cling to Me… NKJV

These translations are conveying the correct notion that Mary is touching Jesus, and he is asking her to stop. She doesn’t need to cling to him, for he hasn’t yet ascended to his Father — they still have some time left, although this also gives her a warning that their relationship is going to change with the ascension. He has a mission for her, and he needs her to let go and find the brothers and give them his message. This correct understanding of the verb completely negates this interpretation.

This speculation fails to take in account the chronologically close encounter with Jesus and the women who come to the tomb: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28:9, KJV) The time between this encounter and the encounter with Mary would have been very short. This too argues against this interpretation.

What I find encouraging about these scenes is that the resurrected Jesus is a touchable Jesus. I had a Greek professor who believed that the popular Christian conception of the afterlife was a little too much Plato and not enough scripture. I sometimes wonder whether when we hear “spiritual body” that our minds don’t go to something ghostly and insubstantial, yet scripture presents us with a touchable Jesus.

*Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 724; Friedrich Blass, Albert Debrunner, and Robert Walter Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, §336(3), p. 172.

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The Father’s House

March 17, 2017

It is a famous line: In my Father’s house there are many mansions. However, the King James Version’s word choice is misleading to modern English readers. We hear the word “mansion,” and we are thinking of a big, manor house. But that is not the meaning of the word in this text in 1611.

Looking at earlier English translations may help. Here is a list of early translations prior to the KJV with their publication date.

Wycliffe (1382-1395) dwellingis
Tyndale (1522) mansions
Coverdale (1535) dwellinges
Geneva (1557) dwelling places
Bishops’ Bible (1568) dwelling places

Tyndale obviously gave us the phrase mansions, but the earliest translation is of Wycliffe, and it is “dwellings” (if we update his spelling). And that rendering is followed by Coverdale, Geneva, and the Bishop’s Bible.

It is not that Tyndale or the King James translators were wrong in using mansions in this passage. It is a case of a word that has changed meanings over the years. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary provides the definition that readers in 1611 would have understood: “archaic:  a place where one remains or dwells.”

This is an image I understand as a father and grandfather. It is joyous to have all my children under one roof, in one house. (Although I must confess in this life, it is a little crowded and makes for difficulties in scheduling the bathroom.) The word picture which Jesus paints is one of being in the Father’s presence. As God’s children, he has room for us in his house.

When the RSV was released with its reading of “rooms” instead of “mansions,” some complained that the RSV had removed the glory from the Bible.* But the glory of a manor house for each of us was never in the text to begin with, it was only in a misreading of the text, a reading that was not intended by the King James translators to begin with. And unfortunately, it is a misreading that is captured in some of our hymns. Often, I’m unable to sing the line, “I want a gold one that is silver lined.” Besides being crassly materialistic, it misses Jesus’ point. Jesus is preparing a place for us to be eternally in the presence of God.

The translation of “rooms” or “dwelling places” instead of “mansions” does not remove the glory from the Bible. What could be more glorious than to have a place in the presence of God, a place in the Father’s house!

*Ronald F. Bridges and Luther A. Weigle, King James Bible Word Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 217. See this work for words that have changed meanings since 1611.


Handle with Prayer

March 10, 2017

Bills, sickness, bereavement, arguments, raising children, caring for elderly parents, pressures on the job, transfers — the pressures of life seem endless. Two modern observers have even developed a stress scale. If we score over 200 points in a given year, we are under a great deal of stress and may have difficulties. Their scale ranges from the death of a spouse, 100 points, to smaller things like surviving the Christmas holidays, 12 points.

It seems to me that Paul must have hit 200 stress points at times.

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–28, ESV)

He not only had some calamitous things happen to him, but he also faced persecution for his faith.

Paul was no stranger to stress. When he wrote Philippians, he was under arrest (1:14). Some preached Christ to cause Paul problems (1:17). He faced his own death (1:20) as well as feeling opposition and suffering (1:28- 30). His friend had been sick and almost died (2:26-27). Doctrinal problems existed (3:2), and two friends disagreed (4:2). Paul’s words on handling anxiety came out of the crucible of real life.

Paul teaches us to stop being anxious by taking everything to God in prayer.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7, ESV)

Paul could say, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, ESV). Paul could rely on spiritual resources to face the problems of life. He wasn’t just relying on his own strength.

Someone has also remarked, “There is nothing too great for God’s power; and nothing too small for His fatherly care.” Paul practiced this and discovered the peace of God which transcends all understanding. When we face the stresses of life, may we handle with prayer.


Prejudices

March 3, 2017

In the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Richards and O’Brien warn us not to read the ethnic prejudices of our culture into the ancient world. One such passage is Numbers 12 where Miriam and Aaron complain about the Cushite wife of Moses. Several questions can be raised in this passage. Does Cushite mean Midianite? Is this woman Zipporah, or is this a second wife? Cushite normally means Ethiopian. Are Miriam and Aaron complaining that Moses married a black African? Unfortunately, commentators have sometimes read modern ethnic prejudices into this text.

Richards and O’Brien examine Cushites from an ancient world perspective and come away with quite a different, possible take on the passage.

The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers.’ It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. That makes sense of the tone of the passage. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they whined. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2). In other words: Moses is not the only prophet here. Who does he think he is?*

Although I would view this as a possible reading of the text, it is at least informed by the ancient world. It avoids reading the text through modern ethnic prejudices.

Certainly, ethnic prejudices existed in the ancient world. A careful reading with cultural awareness can spot some of these. Greeks looked at everyone else as barbarians, their term for non-Greek speakers. It is an onomatopoeic word. To the Greeks, non-Greek speaking people sounded like they were going around saying “bar … bar.” Jews looked down on Gentiles. Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jews could neglect the Greek speaking Jewish widows (Acts 6).

Although prejudices exist in the ancient world as well as the modern, scripture is consistently against such prejudices. We are called to see every human being from God’s point of view. All are created in the image of God. God loves the whole world and wishes that none should be lost. With Paul, we must exclaim: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV). We must sing like the heavenly scene found in Revelation: “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10, ESV). We must check our cultural blinders, and behave as God would have us treat one another.

*E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Kindle Locations 602-605). Kindle Edition.