I haven’t had a lot of opertunity to update the site recently because I have been busy working on projects with Biblical Missiology. Here is some of what I have been up to recently.
The new “Aramaic English New Testament (AENT)” claims to have resolved a number of issues in our understanding of the biblical text by translating directly from an “original” Aramaic text. However, these claims are better categorized as slight of hand than they are new discoveries in biblical studies. In this article, I will investigate a number of the claims made and show why these are not nearly the earth shattering discoveries that the translators of this text have claimed.
Was the NT really written originally in Aramaic?
The authors of the AENT suggest that our Greek NT texts are a “re-translation” of original Aramaic texts, stating that “Most people are shocked to learn that the bible they grew up with was not translated directly from original Aramaic texts but rather from Greek versions that were re-translated into English.” However, there is very little evidence to support this conclusion. The oldest Aramaic text that we have in our possession comes from the late 4th century, but the earliest Greek text we have is dated to the mid 1st century i.e. within a decade of the time we believe it was original penned. While there is speculation that there may have been an Aramaic ‘Q’ text that was used as a source by the author of the NT, very few Syriac scholars believe that the text of the Peshitta that we have today represents that original ‘Q’ text. The majority of Syriac scholars believe that the Peshitta is an Aramaic translation of Greek (or Latin) original texts. The suggestion that the Peshitta text represents an original text that was later translated into Greek is a very minority position that has no direct textual support.
Is “my God, my God, why have you spared me?” really a better translation?
The translators of the AENT suggest that Jesus didn’t really say “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” during his final moments on the cross as reported in the Gospels (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). By reading the Aramaic, it is suggested that a new meaning is revealed. We will examine some of the problems with this claim. Let’s first begin by looking at a few of the texts involved.
1. It presupposes that the NT authors (Matthew and Mark) misunderstood Jesus words.
The proposed translation of the Aramaic is highly unlikely, and because the NT authors explained their own understanding of these Aramaic words spoken by Jesus, we must conclude that the NT authors themselves misunderstood Jesus’ words in order accept this proposition. Such a suggestion would would significantly damage a belief in the inspiration of the of the Scriptures.
2. It ignores the fact that שבק was the expected translation for עזב used in both the OT and NT.
Aramaic translations of the OT that pre-date the Gospel accounts use the very same words in translation as were quoted in the Gospel (See above). This was the expected Aramaic word choice to communicate the idea of being ‘forsaken’ which is clearly communicated in the Hebrew text of Ps. 22:1. There is very little reason to believe that the intended meaning of the Aramaic word used by Jesus on the cross would be different than the same word used in the text of Ps. 22:1 or from the meaning conveyed in the explanatory Greek text provided in the Gospel account.
3. It ignores the fact that the Greek word ἐγκατέλιπές used in the explanatory text, is the same word used in the translation of Ps. 22:1.
As with the Aramaic translation of Ps. 22:1, the Greek LXX translation of the OT (which also predates the NT) uses the same vocabulary as is used in the Gospel account. In both the Gospel account and in the LXX, it is clear that the meaning communicated in Greek was “to forsake.”
4. The suggested translation of the Aramaic is uncommon.
While the suggested translation of the Aramaic is not impossible, it is very unlikely. The common understanding of the Aramaic mirrors the understanding of the Hebrew and Greek words used in translation. The following is the definition provided in HALOT (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament).
Is “rope” really a better translation than “camel” in Mt. 19:24?
The translators of the AENT suggest that the Greek text on which our English translations are based contains an error that is resolved by reading the text in it’s “original” Aramaic. Here again, the evidence presented for this interpretation is far more “smoke and mirrors” than substance. Before we examine the evidence, we should begin by looking at how the word גמלא is used in Aramaic translations of the Old and New Testament.
1. The word is not used anywhere else in Scripture to mean “rope.”
Aside from the “disputed” texts, גמל/גמלא is not used in either the OT or NT with the meaning of “rope.” In the OT we see many usages that refer to “camels” i.e. Gen. 24:10, 22, 30, 32, 61, 63, 64, 31:17, 32:16, Lev. 11:4, Deut. 14:7, 1 Sam. 15:3, 30:17, 1 Chr. 5:21, 27:30, Neh. 7:68, Job 1:3, 17, 42:12, Isa. 21:7, Tob. 9:2, Jdt. 2:17, 1 Es. 5:42. In the NT, aside from these “disputed” text, even the AENT translates גמלא as camel (check Mk. 1:6, Matt. 3:4, 23:24 in the AENT). Note: while a simplification, the suffixed ‘א’ in Aramaic is roughly equivalent to a direct article.
2. Neither ancient Greek or Latin translations support the meaning of “rope.”
Both ancient Greek and Latin translations of this passage understand the word here to be indisputably “camel.” Neither the Latin ‘camelum’ nor the Greek ‘κάμηλον’ can be understood to mean ‘rope.’ There were many Aramaic speakers during the period when these Greek and Latin texts were being distributed that would have recognized a mistake if one had truly been made.
3. The meaning of ‘rope’ is not even given in Lexicon’s of ancient Hebrew / Aramaic.
The root גמל is common in Semitic languages, and as noted below, Hebrew, Aramaic (Syriac), and Arabic roots have the same meaning. The following is the entry for גמל provided in HALOT:
Like so many publications of the past that have claimed new, never before understood discoveries about the bible, the claims made by the translators of AENT do not represent new discoveries; the suggestions made by these translators have been made many times before, and have been rejected by the majority of scholars over and over again. Other translations made directly from the same Aramaic texts (like the Lewis Translation of the NT Peshitta in 1896) read nearly identically to our English texts in both of the cases presented above. A quick check of other translations of these same Aramaic texts (yes they really do exist) will quickly confirm that reading from the Aramaic texts does not change our understanding of these texts in the ways suggested by translators of the AENT. The Aramaic interlinear is not provided for those who can read the text for themselves, for they would recognize the slight of hand being presented, but only to provide the illusion of credibility for the vast majority who are unable to read the Aramaic text.
Ayman S. Ibrahim, professor of Islamic studies and senior fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written an excellent review of “Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities” by Harley Talman and John Jay Travis. In addition to addressing some of the significant shortcomings of this book, his review also outlines some of the significant theological problems with the Insider Movement Paradigm, problems he describes as the “Five Pillars of Insider Moments.” Slightly adapted from Ayman S. Ibraham, they are as follows:
In his review, Ayman S. Ibrahim hits the mark when he states, “these pillars are seriously dangerous, not only in themselves but specifically in their theological, soteriological, and missiological implications.” For those looking for a quick introduction into the world IM, this book review is an excellent place to begin.
“Church, stop sending people who don’t know their God, don’t know their message, and don’t know what it is like to submit to authority. Please, for the sake of God’s glory, stop.”
Steve Jennings, pastor of Immanuel Church of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, in his impassioned plea to the church, describes one of the foundation issues that has lead to our biggest problems in missions today i.e. we are sending people to minister to people abroad who do not have the spiritual maturity or theological training needed to be successful. And rather than helping the ministries of the church abroad, far too often these missionaries are damaging those ministries. Steve asks us (the churches that are sending missionaries) some very good questions, questions that we really need to grapple with before we send another missionary abroad or spend another dollar on missions.
Why would you send someone to plant churches abroad who you would never hire as a pastor or nominate as a lay elder?
Why does it seem that “passion” rather than proven faithfulness is the main criterion for sending men and women to support those church planters?
Why on earth is the bar set lower for the frontlines than it is for the local church?
These are questions we really need to begin asking before we send another missionary or invest another dollar in foreign missions. If we fail to ask these kinds of questions, they may never get answered because too many of our sending organizations stopped asking these kinds of questions long, long, ago, and the resulting damage done by missionaries and bible “translators” is heart breaking. While the concerns raised in this article are concerns I have heard echoed many times by leaders of churches abroad, these are seldom concerns I hear from the organizations that are sending missionaries. This is not the first time I have heard those in church abroad plead with those sending missionaries to STOP what they are doing and work with the local churches rather than against them. In Bangladesh the local church has tried for decades to stop our western missionaries from undermining their work with unbiblical practices, but to no avail. This video describes the same dilemma that has been described by Steve, in this video a couple of Bangladeshi pastors tell us as they describe the problems they are facing because of missionaries sent from the west that:
“I must say that, yes, this is coming from outside from western countries…”
“It is a shame actually, we don’t know how to stop it. The Isai group (converts from a Muslim Background) they are also against that (practices of our western missionaries), and the traditional people (those from a Christian background), they are also against that, but we don’t know who to stop it.”
Please read and consider Steve’s plea to the church, and this video from our Bangladeshi brothers in Christ, and so many other brothers and sisters in Christ that have found themselves powerless to stop the damage being done by the missionaries we are sending.
In a recent article published on the Gospel Coalition website several leaders of the Evangelical church in India are interviewed. In response to the question “Are there particular ways we can better facilitate gospel advance in India?”, one of these leaders responds saying:
“Westerners need to give up ideas such as rapid church-planting movements, rapid discipleship, certain extreme forms of contextualization, and insider movements. They need to realize that planting healthy churches is painstakingly slow, hard work. It requires perseverance, tears, sweat, and even blood. Don’t lambast the missionary efforts of the past; rather, trust the good Lord to give growth as and when he wants. We need to be patient, diligent, hard-working, faithful, and biblical in our efforts, strategies, planning, and implementation.”
This is something I have personally heard echoed by church leaders in many foreign cultures, and sadly it is a reflection of the training that most of our missionaries receive from the agencies that are sending them. It is time for the Evangelical church to hold our missionaries accountable and stop funding those who refuse to work hand in hand with the national churches in the regions they are trying to reach. Too often the cries of the national churches fall on the deaf ears of the missionaries we send to “help.”
Increasingly ‘Allah’ is being used as a word for ‘God’ in non-Semitic language bible translations produced by organizations like Wycliffe, Frontiers, and others and this has raised concerns with the local churches where these translations are being introduced, missionaries who work with these churches, and other bible translators who are concerned about the legitimacy of these new translations. These new Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) are being produced in languages like Amharic, Russian, Persian, etc… that have used other words for God for centuries. In these languages, the use of ‘Allah’ as a word for ‘God’ is a foreign concept ; in these cultures they understand ‘Allah’ much as we do in English i.e. as a name of the Islamic God. In many of these cultures the Christian community has had a very long history of bible translation in which the native word for ‘God’ in their language has been used for centuries. In these cultures, the introduction of a bible that replaces the word ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ is as offensive as it would be if the bibles we read in English made such a replacement. For more information on the use of ‘Allah’ as a name for ‘God’ please read this article.
Here is the Story told
Frequently missionaries who support the use of ‘Allah’ in non-Semitic languages will point to the Frontiers Turkish translation as an example of a non-Semitic language that legitimately uses the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’. And they are right, Turkish is one of the unique cases where ‘Allah’ can legitimately be used in a non-Semitic bible translation. In the Missions Perspective coarse I took, the session that addressed the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian missions and bible translation presented such an argument. The story we were told in class went something like this:
Well meaning, but misguided, missionaries insisted that the Turkish word ‘Tanri’ be used in bible translations despite the fact that ‘Allah’ was the word that the culture understood as the legitimate word for ‘God.’ These misguided missionaries did not understood is that the word ‘Tanri’ was the word used by the Turkish people to describe a ‘little god’ and not the ‘Supreme God’ and their mistake in choosing the wrong word caused the bible to be misunderstood and largely rejected by the Turkish people. Frontiers came to the rescue with a new bible translation resolved this problem by introducing the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’ allowing the non-Christian Turkish people to understand the message of the bible for the first time. Unfortunately the existing Christian church in Turkey, who no longer understood how ‘Tanri’ was understood by the larger culture, was angered by this new translation and its use of the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ and has been fighting against using the very terminology that allows the larger culture to finally be able to understand the message God intended.
The story presented in my Missions Perspective class is a great story and one that is often repeated but, unfortunately, it is mostly smoke, mirrors, and misdirection intended to deceive. Prior to taking the Missions Perspectives course I had had a number of discussions with bible translators about the Frontiers Turkish bible translation and because of those discussions I had taken a little time to study the history of Turkish bible translation. Because of this background I knew that the dispute in Turkey in regards to the new Turkish bible produced by Frontiers has never been about the use of ‘Allah’ as the word for ‘God.’ What troubled the Turkish church were the terms used for familial language i.e. calling Jesus the “representative of God” instead of the “Son of God” and calling God “Guardian” rather than “Father.” In Turkish ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are truly considered synonymous word for ‘God.’ Within the Christian church today, older bibles use ‘Allah’ and newer bibles, because of the language reforms, use ‘Tanri’ and the use of ‘Allah’ has never been a significant issue within the Turkish church. The dispute has been entirely about the translation of familial language which until the introduction of the Frontiers version, has been translated consistently in every bible translation including the original Muslim produced translations from the 17th and 18th century. Here is the responses to the Frontiers Translation from the Turkish alliance of Protestant Churches and the response from Thomas Cosmades (One of the most respected scholars in Turkey and translator of a Turkish NT). Note that in neither letter is the use of Allah in Turkish in dispute.
Here is what really happened
Because Turkish (which was originally written in the Arabic Script) was very heavily influenced by Arabic and Islamic culture, the Turkish language presents an unusual case where a non-Semitic language has truly adopted ‘allah’ as a generic word for ‘god.’ The first Turkish translations of the bible were produced by Muslims in the 17th century and were produced for Muslim audiences; these translations used the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God.’ Christians began using these translations centuries ago and continued to use them until new terminology was adopted as a result of the Turkish language reforms of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These language reforms were not driven by Christian missionaries but by the predominantly Muslim Turkish Government. In the late 1920’s Mustafa Kemal, a secular Turkish president, began a campaign of language reforms that replaced the Arabic Script with the current Latin Script and attempted to create a pure Turkish language free from its Arabic influences. As part of this language reform he insisted that many Arabic words be purged from the Turkish language and that Turkish words be used in their place. One of the most controversial mandates was his insistence that the Turkish word ‘Tranri’ be used by Turks as the name for a divine being in every religious context (even Muslims were required to make this change). The adoption of ‘Tanri’ in Christian bible translations was the result of these language reforms and not a result of a movement within the church initiated by well meaning but misguided missionaries as is claimed by some MIT proponents. The following is a quote from a Time Magazine article written Feb 20, 1933 that speaks about this issue. “A hard father to his people, Mustafa Kemal told his Turks last December that they must forget God in the Arabic language (Allah), learn Him in Turkish (Tanri). Admitting the delicacy of renaming a 1300-year-old god, Kemal gave the muezzins a time allowance to learn the Koran in Turkish. Last week in pious Brusa, the “green* city,” a muezzin halloed “Tanri Ulndur” from one of the minarets whence Brusans had heard “Allah Akbar” since the 14th Century.”
The story told about the Frontiers Turkish translation has become part of missionary folklore and is one of the many fictitious that are being repeated by far too many missionaries. Some repeat these stories because they too have been deceived but, sadly, some repeat these stories with the intent to deceive both their supporters and their fellow missionaries.
For several decades some missionaries[i] from organizations like Frontiers, Wycliffe, SIL, YWAM, and others have adopted a form of contextualization known as C-5 contextualization (or “Insider Movements”). These missionaries believe that followers of Christ should remain in the religion of their birth i.e. a Muslim should remain a Muslim, a Hindu should remain a Hindu, etc… Many of these missionaries suggest that asking someone to convert to Christianity is wrong. In Muslim contexts, “C-5 believers” frequently hold views about Christ that mirror the beliefs of the general Muslim population. They may continue to identify themselves as Muslims, continue to affirm Mohammad as God’s prophet, continue to affirm the Qu’ran as God’s word, and reject a belief in the divinity of Christ. Western missionary organizations promoting C-5 contextualization have produced new translations of the bible that harmonize the place and people names with those used and the Qu’ran and replace terms like Father, Son, Baptism, etc.. with alternative language that Muslim audiences find “less offensive.”
For more than a decade the Turkish church has expressed its serious concerns about the methods used and translations produced by these western missionaries. In 2007, Thomas Cosmades[ii] (one of the leading biblical scholars and translators in Turkey), in an open letter, expressed his concerns about a translation being produced by Frontiers. When those concerns were ignored, the Alliance of Protestant Churches wrote a warning letter to the churches in regards to the later published “Muslim friendly” translation.
Today, the pleas of the Turkish church remain unheeded and now leaders (mostly Muslim) in the Turkish government have taken notice of these practices and issued a warning about these missionaries, their practices, and their bible translations. The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Turkish news yesterday (January 19, 2014).
TURKEY’S CiA (MIT) warns government (Prime Minister and Ministry of Religious Affairs) about foreign Christian undercover missionaries posing as Muslims operating under a branch named C-5 in a mission agency called Frontiers. Also mentioned by name are Jeff Carvey in Bursa and Bruce Privatsky in Tekirdag. The article also mentions the attempts of creating a Muslim-friendly Bible translation to entice Muslims.
The complete article (in Turkish) can be found here.
The news article (in English) is now available here
C-5 contextualization and its accompanying translations are hindering the evangelistic work of our brothers and sisters in Christ in many parts of the world because it is angering the Muslims they are trying to reach; Muslims who believe Christians are trying to deceive them. When Muslims react in anger to the deceptive methods that our western missionaries have employed, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who live among them that suffer. Please listen to the pleas of our brothers and sisters in Christ and make sure the money you give to missionaries is not being used to promote the deceptive practices of C-5 contextualization, practices that hinder the Gospel and endanger our brothers and sisters in Christ. More information on this issue can be found on the Biblical Missiology website.
Those supporting “Insider Movements,” like Dudley Woodberry, have been telling us for decades that “conversional protestantism” was ineffective, unwise, and even damaging to the cultures where we have sent our missionaries. They argue that we should not be converting people to Christianity but rather we should be helping them to come into the kingdom of God through their own religious contexts. They say that Muslims should remain Muslims, Hindus should remain Hindus, etc…. So, it was surprising to read an article by John Piper about a research paper published by Woodberry that shows that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.” However, before you get your hopes up believing that a change of heart may have taken place, realize that it is Robert Woodberry, and not Dudley Woodberry, who did the research. I truly hope the many Christian missionaries who have forgotten the Great Commission and have endorsed leaving people in the bondage of false religious systems will take the time to read Robert Woodberry’s research because it demonstrates the truly transformative power that accompanies genuine faith in Christ.
Piper’s summery of this research can be found here.
Robert Woodberry’s research paper can be found here.
There is a growing trend in our postmodern culture to treat “religion” like a buffet line, serving ourselves portions of things we like from each religion and rejecting those things that seem distasteful to us. Instead of seeking to understand what is true, too often we make our decisions based only on what feels good to us.
Stuart Townend and Keith Getty are to be commended for standing strong against this modern trend. Together they wrote “In Christ Alone” with the intent of sharing the complete Gospel message in song. When they were asked, last year, to allow their hymn to be published with altered lyrics that removed parts of the Gospel message that others were uncomfortable with, they refused because they wanted to ensure that their hymn would continue to communicate the whole Gospel message. Thank you Stuart and Keith for writing such a powerful hymn and thank you for being willing to stand firm when their was pressure to compromise. A complete interview with Stuart Townsand and Keith Getty can be found here.
The response to a question about the legitimacy of “Holy Hip Hop” from a panel hosted by the National Center for Family-integrated churches erupted into a social media firestorm this past week. The views of the panel can be summed up in the following statement made by Geoff Botkin, he said “And what concerns me about this so called art form, it is a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think that they are serving God and they’re not. They are serving their own flesh, they’re caving into the world, they’re disobedient cowards! They are not willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged.” The panel’s harsh criticism of “Holy Hip Hop” has incited a number of responses from men like Mike Cosper, Ligon Ducan, Carl and Karen Ellis, Paige Patterson, Owen Strachan, Jonathan Akin, Brian Davis, and others. What was the heart of this controversy? It was not about the message communicated by these Hip Hop artists (something the panelists acknowledged was doctrinally sound), it was wholly about the style in which it was being presented. The heart of this controversy goes far beyond questions about the legitimacy of “Holy Hip Hop.” At the center of this controversy is a much bigger question, a question that every minister of the Gospel must ask: What are valid expressions of contextualization in Christian ministry?
It is critically important that we do not confuse our cultural standards with the Gospel message. We must be uncompromisingly committed to upholding the truth of the Gospel in all our teaching but we must do so without imposing our own cultural biases on those who come from other cultural backgrounds. We need to remember that we, as Christians, are called to share only the Gospel of Christ. When we elevate our own cultural standards to the same level as the Gospel, we alienate the people around us and draw attention away from the Gospel message we are called to share.
Proper contextualization of the Gospel message is something with which we all must wrestle. Too little contextualization hinders the spread of the Gospel message by imposing barriers that Scripture does not impose. When we suggest that obedience to Christ requires one to abandon a particular style of music, kind of food, style of dress, etc… we have imposed a standard not given in Scripture and have raised an unnecessary barrier to the Gospel. At the same time we must remember that too much contextualization can so compromise the truth of the Gospel that the message of the Gospel itself is lost. While the Hip Hop style of music itself does not compromise the Gospel message, there are aspects of Hip Hop culture that do and we must be willing to abandon those aspects of culture that stand in opposition to the Gospel. For instance, we can praise our Lord with the sound of Hip Hop but the lyrics of many secular Hip Hop songs truly do not belong on the lips of those who proclaim faith in Christ.