Precious Death

This post originally appeared here on August 17, 2008. But I’m reflecting on it again in light of Good Friday. I have proposed below that the death of God’s servant is precious to him (Psalm 116:15) perhaps because it is a rare and costly thing. It is costly because it means that faithful servant is no longer serving the Lord’s purposes on this earth. How does that apply to the death of Jesus? Jesus’ public ministry on earth ended with his death, so we can again say that the death is costly. And it cost Jesus so much more, too. Insults, beatings, the agony of a slow murder. Despised by men, forsaken by the Father, he who knew no sin becoming sin for us. And yet the death of Jesus is also precious because it accomplishes so much! Victory over sin, death and the devil! Jesus died so that I don’t have to die. Yet through his death, I too can die to self, sin, my sundry precious idols, and yes, I too can die to death in the death of Christ.

Okay, the post from August 17, 2008, entitled “Psalm 116:15 – My ‘Precioussss’…

We learn a good lesson from Tolkien’s Gollum and the ring he calls “My Precioussss.” Indeed it is the things we consider most precious that have a way of sucking us into their power to control us and blind us to their dangers and to the value of other things.

Even our approach to the word of God can become that to us if we lose sight of the living God who speaks that word (see NT Wright’s recent lecture to a group of Anglican bishops concerning the theme of his book Scripture and the Authority of God ). We students and scholars of the Bible also come to the word of God with our interpretive “Preciouseses,” and we allow these perspectives–as well-intentioned as they may be–to control our reading and application of the text.

In light of these dangers, I appreciate the fellowship of community–including this biblioblogging community–and how we seek to fulfill what Edgar Krentz (The Historical-Critical Method, 53-54) has described as the virtue of the biblical historian:

The critical biblical scholar will not only question the texts, but himself–his methods, his conclusions, and his presuppositions–and the others who share in the same task. For he knows how often men are captive to their own prejudices and limitations…. On the one hand the historian remains critical of his own critical abilities…. But in a more profound sense he recognizes that in judging a text he also places himself under judgment of the text. And where the text deals with the profundities of man, that calls for a submission to the autonomy of the text that calls the historian forth for judgment and knowledge of himself. Then history performs its humane or (in the case of biblical texts) its theological function.

And thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to re-examine my own approach to the text and translation. The discussion has centered around the legitimacy of some translations to interpret the word יקר (yāqār) in this context to mean ‘too precious’. And so instead of a more literal translation stating that the death of the faithful is precious to the LORD, they either say that the death of the faithful is somehow grievous to the LORD (NAB, Tanakh, TEV, CEV), or the verse focuses completely on the value of the life of his faithful followers (NET).

What is my translation philosophy for passages like this where the meaning is either ambiguous or perhaps evenly debated? (This questioning of allegiance to my own translation philosophy is how the discussion of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 relates to the image of Gollum and his ‘Precioussss’ and the lesson of being self-critical.)

Even though I have argued that the death of the faithful in Psalm 116:15 may be precious to the LORD precisely because he finds great value in their continued faithfulness in life, I feel quite uncomfortable losing the reference to the preciousness of death in a translation. Although I appreciate the NET Bible for getting at the potential underlying significance of the verse–the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers–it unfortunately removes any reference to death at all, and so the translation fails to show what this significance is in application to. In other words, the original expression of this verse is not a statement about life, but of death.

The value that God places on faithfulness in life may help us to understand why he considers the death of one of his children such a precious thing, but the statement about the preciousness of death should not be lost too easily. Something is precious when it is rare or when its value is high. We are willing to spend a large fortune on something that is most dear to us. And the great cost to the LORD of seeing the death of one of his faithful servants is that the person is no longer serving the LORD in the world. That is one way in which the death of the faithful may be understood to be a precious thing to the LORD. But to merely say that the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers says nothing of those lives coming to an end in death nor of the LORD’s view of such a death. Furthermore, such a translation precludes any other possible explanation for the LORD’s perspective on the preciousness of death among his faithful.

When a passage is debated like this, or when its meaning is truly ambiguous, it is a worthy goal of the translation team to express the meaning with an equivalent dose of ambiguity. However, inasmuch as the process of translation is an arduous and complicated process, the attempt at translating a double meaning or an ambiguous meaning is exponentially more difficult. It may be easiest to do if a highly literal translation reflects the same indeterminacy or multiplicity of senses as found in the original language text. But that is often unlikely.

I know it’s impossible to avoid interpretation in translation, and many times it’s necessary and important to choose the best understanding of a text to be reflected clearly in a translation. But we certainly don’t want our translations to over-interpret the text. When a translation comes down heavily on one side of an ambiguous, unclear, or debated text, that may be over-interpretation. If that interpretation is something that we hold dear–perhaps a “My Precioussss”–it’s more difficult to let it go. But even as we apply the tools of exegesis and communication to the processes of interpretation and translation, we must allow the Voice of the text to do his theological work in us.

The Greek ‘the’ and the English ‘the’

Wayne Leman over at the Better Bibles Blog has posted on the translation of Greek articles here, focusing specifically on occurrences of “the house” in Matthew where a house has not previously been introduced in the text. One discourse pattern we often find is that definite nouns are used only after that noun has been introduced in the text in an indefinite manner. However, definiteness is not always dependent on the article in Greek. I have posted my response to Wayne in the comments of his post. I’ll only repeat part of that here…

When I read “the house” in the gospels about a house that I have not been introduced to yet, this communicates to me that there was a definite house that Jesus was going to. If the translation were to say “a house,” that would sound to me like Jesus was aimlessly meandering and randomly came across any house when he felt like it was time to stop. So in some of these cases, the ‘the’ doesn’t have to have the same discourse function that we often think of when it is used to refer back to a previously introduced noun. Rather, the article conceptualizes the noun in a certain way (perhaps even making it definite, although it is true that definiteness is not ultimately dependent upon the Greek article) for other reasons besides its previous occurence in the text.In Mt. 9:28, I like what the NLT has done here with “the house where he was staying.” That has the effect of communicating a certain definiteness, and it seems to be a very likely referent that is not too overly specific without other clues. Often times “going into the house” in Greek is the equivalent of our English “going home.” On the other hand, isn’t it possible that “the house” refers to Matthew’s house, the last house we hear of before Jesus was summoned to go to the synagogue leader’s house? Maybe not, since that interpretation would assume that Jesus stayed there for more than just dinner and was there for several days during which the disciples of John the Baptist came to him before the synagogue ruler came to him. Probably quite unlikely. Therefore, it seems that the best option is that Jesus is still in his own town (cf. 9:1), so “the house” is probably whatever house he’s staying in, perhaps even a family house, or ‘home’ as “the house” often means in Greek.

As for 13:36, it’s very possible that Jesus is back in his home town again, since 12:15 says that he left the area he had gone to after he left his home town. Also, his mother and brothers are back in the picture in 12:46. Mt. 13:1 refers to Jesus leaving “the house” and so 13:36 refers to him going into “the house.” It’s the same one he left, very definite even if we don’t want to go so far as to say it was his family home.

As for 17:25, this is Peter’s home town, (cf. Mt. 4:18) and we know that Peter’s mother-in-law had a house there (Mt. 8:14), so this is probably one of those places where “the house” is best understood as the definite idea of ‘home’.

Mt. 24:43 has “the house of him” because it has already referred to the ‘homeowner’.

Daniel Wallace discusses the uses and non-uses of the Greek article in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 206-290. I have summarized his discussion in 4 pages if anyone is interested.

As for the differences between the Greek and English uses of the article, it is best to try to identify why a Greek noun has the article in particular instances before deciding if the same meaning is communicated in English with or without the definite article.

“the Lord, Jesus, the Christ” in James 1:1

Well, I see that Nick Norelli identified this blog here as having a focus on James, and it made me realize that although I have posted much on bibliographic resources for James, I haven’t posted much on James myself. So I thought I’d start making some short observations on James. I’ll start with verse 1.

Ἰάκωβος θεοῦ καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοῦλος ταῖς δώδεκα φυλαῖς ταῖς ἐν τῇ διασπορᾷ χαίρειν.

James, a slave of God and of the Lord, Jesus, the Christ, to the twelve tribes in the diaspora: greetings!

Right away, you’ll notice an abundance of commas in my translation above. This is very intentional. Is “the Lord Jesus Christ” to be understood as one big proper name? I don’t think so. ‘Jesus’, of course, is a proper name, but what about ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’? Certainly the authors of the New Testament wrote the name of Jesus in combination with ‘Lord’ and/or ‘Christ’ very frequently, and references to Jesus along with these titles became somewhat formulaic. However, even though the name of Jesus was commonly uttered along with ‘Lord’ and/or ‘Christ’, this in no way means that these titles lost their meaning, especially if there is evidence in the context that supports the possibility that the meaning of these titles is in view. So, in James 1:1, I see this as a statement by James that he is a slave of God and of the Lord. Who is the Lord? There’s only one Lord — Jesus. Jesus the Messiah (Christ).

I find myself being convinced of this by the argument that Julius Scott makes on this issue in his paper “Commas and the Christology of the Epistle of James.” This paper was presented in 1999 at the Evangelical Theological Society, National Meeting, in Danvers, MA. It used to be available on his webpage on the Wheaton College site, but that is no longer available since he is now retired. I can’t seem to find it elsewhere on the web. I reproduce the relevant portion here…

Punctuation, such as that which appears in our modern Greek texts and translations, is, of course, of recent vintage.  Hence, it is legitimate to ask if the authors, and much of early Christendom with them, may have assumed some relation between the terms other than that suggested by the lack of commas in our contemporary texts.  May they have intended “Lord, Jesus Christ,” “Lord Jesus, Christ (= [the] Messiah)”, or “Lord, Jesus, Christ (= [the] Messiah)”?

Paul gives us a glimpse into his world when he says,

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

It is interesting that in this context the RSV editors (but not those of the Nestle-Aland 26th edition of the Greek NT) insert a comma between “Lord” and “Jesus Christ,” thus placing “Jesus Christ” in apposition to “Lord” and defining which of the many lords is the intended reference.  Why, I ask, is specificity needed only here?  The situation to which Paul refers was rampant throughout the world of the NT.  There is, I suggest, evidence of just such an attempt for preciseness in the NT text itself.  Again, working from statistics gleaned from the RSV, six (17%) of the occurrences of “Lord Jesus” are prefaced with the  pronoun “our,” “our” precedes one of the two occurrences of “Lord Christ,” and the possessive pronoun is found forty-one times (or 65%) of the sixty three appearances of “Lord Jesus Christ”; the writers want to make clear that they refer solely to the Christian’s lord, “our Lord, [comma!] Jesus Christ.” Note that our statistical survey did not include such phrases with built-in specificity as “Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39; Eph 3:11; 2 Tim 1:2), “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:3), “Jesus our Lord” (Rom 4:24), “Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8), or “Christ Jesus the Lord” (Col 2:6).

Virtually all of the occurrences of “our Lord” are evidences of early, pre-punctuation precision in the Christian affirmation of belief that, in a world claiming “many lords,” it is none other than Jesus who is Lord.  Hence, I believe, the comma should follow kurios/lord in most cases where that title is followed by Jesus, Christ, or Jesus Christ; for the NT writers there was only one Lord (cf. Eph 4:5)!  A more accurate modern English translation would usually be “our Lord, [comma] Jesus Christ.”

Against this background we return to the Epistle of James. In the first verse we are confronted with the statement, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1, RSV). Is it not legitimate, indeed mandatory, that we consider translating these words, “James, slave[1] of God and of the Lord, Jesus, the Messiah”? Such a rendering immediately transports us into a very different world than that often assumed for the epistle. It is a world of slaves and lords. And, for Christians, there is no Lord other than Jesus. In this Semitic world the Greek Christos is not merely part of a proper name but a reverential title, “The Anointed One.” Hence, James conveys the same affirmation as did Peter at Pentecost, “Jesus himself is both the Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

Although we have preferred to translate “servant” (doulos) “slave,” it is noteworthy that Ralph Martin, rejecting a sociological sense, insists on “servant.” This, he notes, was a designation of honor and authority for such leaders as Moses, David, and the prophets. It may carry overtones of Phil 2:11 where the humiliated one received honor and glory.[2]

This introduction in 1:1 sets the stage for the epistle with phrases which, in a Jewish Christian setting, assume a high Christology. It erects the framework within which the epistle is to be understood.

[1] If the author was “James, the Lord’s brother,” a member of Jesus’ boyhood home, who during his public ministry did not “believe in him” (John 7:5), the self-designation “slave” (doulos) is all the more surprising.  It gives such terms as “Lord” and “Messiah” even more force.[2] James, 4-8.


So if the rest of the Letter of James is read in light of James having identified himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord, Jesus, the Christ [=Messiah], what happens?

This issue comes up again in James 2:1. We’ll look at that next time.