Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus

Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus
David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr., Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 2001

At first I thought I found a gem of a book here but now I am not that sure. This little book of 128 pages argues that we need to interpret the Gospels from a Hebraic perspective.

The authors are scholars of Judaic-Christian studies. They maintain that the bible needs to read with knowledge of the Hebrew language. They contend that the Synoptic Gospels are originally conveyed in Hebrew and that it is with much Hebraic idioms that cannot be fully brought across by merely interpreting it into Greek or in our case English. For example, English idioms like “kill time”, “hit the ceiling” or “eat your heart out” cannot be understood from the conjoined meanings of its elements (p.2). So it is with Hebraic idioms.

According to them, the Gospels are in fact a Greek translation of Hebrew origins. Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew.

They brought up a number of “mistranslations”, that is, in our perspective. I highlight two of them here:

Luke 10:9 (NASB)
… The kingdom of God has come near to you.
The Greek “engiken” or the English “near” mean “it is not yet here”, which give an futuristic implication being not here yet. But the Hebrew “karav” means the exact opposite – it is here! It has arrived! (p.62)

Matthew 5:42 (NASB)
Give to him who asks of you,
and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

This saying is couched in Hebrew poetry – parallelism, i.e. expressing of the same thought twice, but each time in different words. In Matt 5:42, the repeated theme is carried through with the words “ask” and “borrow, each in parallel meaning of the other. In Hebrew, “ask” has three meanings: (1) ask a question, (2) make a request and (3) borrow. The authors tie this verse to Matt 5:39 calling it a further illustration of “Do not try to ‘get even’ (Hebraic interpretation of ‘turn the other cheek’) with a neighbour who wronged you”. Instead, when he comes asking to borrow something, sugar or salt or flour, give it to him. (p.73-4).

I was quite impressed with it at first but as I thought about it further, I am not sure if I am now. I also have loads of questions, the obvious one being: how do I know when is it a Hebraic idiom and when is it not?

It was also highlighted that “righteousness” and “judgement” in Hebrew could also mean “salvation”. If that is the case, then Matt 12:18b (quoted from Isaiah 42:1) which reads, “I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles”, would mean that God has given salvation to the Gentiles. But what does that say about the usage of “righteousness” in Pauline’s epistles? Paul is very much a Jew himself, a Hebrew of Hebrews in fact. Should we also give the same treatment to the rest of the New Testament? Why do the authors only focus on the Synoptic Gospels?


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