What translation of the Bible is the best one to use? (Part 1)

English translations of the Bible abound–which is the best one to use?

Q.  What is the version of the Bible that we, Christians, should use?  Which is better: NIV, KJV, NKJV or The Message? 

I will answer your question as objectively as I can, but first, by way of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I was one of the translators for a recently published contemporary version, The Voice Bible.  (I translated the books of Deuteronomy and Hosea, and also wrote the Deuteronomy commentary.) I also have a close working relationship with Biblica, which holds the copyright to the New International Version (NIV). I was a member of the team that helped Biblica produce The Books of the Bible, an edition of the NIV without chapters and verses, and I continue to work closely with them on a variety of other projects.  I also do some consulting with the NIV translation committee, most recently working with them on the visual formatting of that translation.  I can personally recommend the NIV very highly for its accuracy and readability.

This much said, let me respond to your question.  When it comes to translations such as the ones you mention, which tend to be produced by committees of reputable biblical scholars and issued by major Christian publishers, I don’t believe there are any “bad” translations.  Rather, translation teams simply make different choices, and that is what distinguishes one version of the Bible from another.  But these choices do make a given translation better suited for some purposes than for others.  The Voice Bible, for example, is designed to be read aloud in worship gatherings, with various speakers taking different parts. The Books of the Bible allows people to “read big” through the grand story of Scripture, as tens of thousands of people have already been doing through Biblica’s Community Bible Experience program.

Probably the most significant choice is whether to try to render the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible into English (or any other “receptor” language) word-for-word, to the fullest extent possible, with the goal of giving the reader the best idea of what the original text looks like.  Alternatively, a translation may try to capture the meaning as it can best be understood and render it into the most readable English possible, even if this means not matching each original word with an English equivalent.  The farther a version goes in presenting the meaning “in other words,” the closer it gets to being a paraphrase (like The Message or The Voice Bible) rather than an actual translation.

Let me give you an example.  When Paul is writing to Timothy about the qualifications of an overseer (or elder), he says, among other things, that such a person is to be literally “a man of one woman.”  Bibles that take more of a word-for-word approach tend to translate this “the husband of one wife,” since the Greek word for “man” can also mean “husband,” and the Greek word for “woman” can also mean “wife.”  This is the reading of the KJV, NKJV, and translations that take a similar approach such as the ESV and the NASB.

The idea is apparently that an elder must be married, but have only one wife–that is, not be polygamous; he must have only one wife at a time.  However,  other translations take these words to mean that an elder can only ever have one wife over his lifetime, meaning that men who have been widowed or divorced and who then remarry are not eligible.  Accordingly the NRSV and NAB translate the phrase “married only once.”  But this is no longer a word-for-word translation; it is capturing, in different words, what is understood to be the meaning.  This illustrates the difference in approaches.

Other translations take this same meaning-for-meaning approach, but they understand the meaning differently. In Greek as in English, the expression “a one-woman man” can refer to a man who is exclusively loyal to his wife.  In other words, if we take all of the words together, rather than one at a time, the meaning of the phrase “a man of one woman” may refer to the character and conduct of the elder, rather than to his civil status.  Following this approach, and understanding the meaning this way, the NIV and NLT translate the phrase as “faithful to his wife.”  The Message says that he must be “committed to his wife,” and several other translations have similar readings.

This example illustrates how the rendering of the original into English can differ based on what approach the translators choose to take.  And so my advice to anyone who doesn’t know the original biblical languages would be to compare the reading of a given passage in a word-for-word English translation (such as the KJV or NKJV, which you mentioned) with that in a meaning-for-meaning translation (such as the NIV or The Message), to get a good idea of the range of possibilities.

You can compare how a given passage is translated by several dozen leading versions by using the “see [verse reference] in all English translations” feature on BibleGateway.  But I hope that in addition to doing this kind of close comparison, you will also read extensively through the Bible to get the sweep of its overall story and see where all of the parts fit within it.  I think that’s the best way to understand what the Bible is saying to you.

There are two other key choices that translators must make as well. I’ll discuss those in my next post.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 4)

Title page of Genesis from the King James Bible, clearly expressing the traditional authorship assumption. Compare this with your Bible–does it just say “Genesis”?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In the next post, I explained that many scholars believe the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places later in Israel’s history.  Last time I discussed the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of that view.  Now in this final post in the series I’d like to offer some reflections on how the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue with the traditional view that Moses wrote these books instead.

Let me frame the dialogue this way:  What might a proponent of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis have to say positively about the traditional view?  And what might someone who believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch have to say positively about the other view?

I think someone who held to the Documentary Hypothesis would start by observing that the believing community has had a tendency down through the centuries to attribute anonymous works to known leading figures.  The book of Hebrews, for example, was for a long time attributed to the apostle Paul.  (In the King James Bible it’s actually entitled “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–just as Genesis is called “The First Book of Moses,” as shown above.)  But most scholars today, including those who hold dearly to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, acknowledge that this letter was almost certainly not written by Paul.  Most scholars also acknowledge that the anonymous biblical book that has come to be known as the Gospel According to Matthew was similarly not written by the figure it has traditionally been attributed to.  And so forth, in several cases.

However, when we recognize these authorship claims for what they really are–authority claims–we can see how they have abiding validity.  The believing community has attributed these works not just to well-known figures, but to leaders who were first-hand participants in the epochal redemptive-historical events they record.  In other words, through these authorship claims, the community is saying, “We recognize and accept these works as trustworthy accounts of God’s key saving interventions in human history and in the life of our ongoing community.”  And in that assessment of the works, someone who held to a Documentary theory of the Pentateuch’s composition could be in full agreement with someone who believed that Moses was its author.

We can take this even further than that.  The Documentary theorist could also acknowledge that these works have such authority precisely because their contents, the building blocks of material that later writers assembled, go back ultimately to a collection that Moses himself created of the earliest Israelite traditions and to records that he kept of God’s communications during his lifetime.  These building blocks would have been transmitted both orally and in written form down through the centuries until they were worked into written documents by later figures.

Of course it cannot be proved that this happened.  But the strong and enduring tradition associating these works with Moses provides a very strong suggestion that he is the ultimate source of the material.  In the same way, we have confidence that the gospels present the authentic deeds and teaching of Jesus, even though the material in them was transmitted orally (and perhaps also in writing) for a generation before the four evangelists collected and arranged it to create their different works.  I think a proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis could affirm all of these things.

For their part, people who believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch should have no trouble acknowledging that the materials in it had to be adapted so that later generations could understand and appreciate them.  We see this kind of “updating” throughout the Bible, for example, when the current name of a place is added by way of explanation after it is called by its former name, or when an archaic term is explained so that the audience will understand its use, as in this classic case from the life of Saul:  “Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.”  (Right after this explanation is offered, Saul and his servant ask a passer-by, “Is the seer here?”–and the audience, used to hearing such figures called “prophets,” understands.)

A person who held to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch might not be prepared to allow that it has been “updated” to the extent that Documentary theorists describe, with separate Judean and Israelite “epics” being composed by the 8th century B.C. to express the national identity and aspirations of those two kingdoms, a “Deuteronomonic history” being added in the time of Josiah, and a rival “Priestly” account composed before the Babylonian exile, with everything woven together upon the return from exile.  But if a person who held the traditional view could agree that the discussion was really about a difference in degree (how much “updating,” to what extent), rather than in kind (one view treating any hand other than Moses’s as negligible, and other other view considering the contributions of other hands to be significant), there might well be room for fruitful and constructive dialogue between these positions.

That, at least, is how I see it.  Thank you again for your question, and I hope I have done some justice to it even in the brief space allowed by the blog format.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 3)

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Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In my next post, I explained that many scholars believe that the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  I’d now like to discuss the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of this belief.

First, throughout the Pentateuch, the God of Israel is referred to by different names, two in particular: Yahweh, translated in most English Bibles as “the Lord” (in small caps), and Elohim, commonly translated “God.”  The original arguments behind the so-called Documentary Hypothesis held that these different names signaled the work of different authors.  One was the “Yahwist” (abbreviated J from the German version of that name), working in the southern kingdom of Judah where the covenant name Yahweh was in common use. The other was the “Elohist” (E), working in the northern kingdom of Israel where the worship of Yahweh was in decline.

We have at least one strong suggestion elsewhere in the Bible that these two different names were preferred in the two separate kingdoms.  Psalm 14, a “psalm of David” according to its superscription, and thus likely of Judean origin, primarily uses the divine name Yahweh.  Psalm 53 is a near-verbatim version of the same psalm that was apparently adapted for use in the northern kingdom because it consistently replaces the name Yahweh with Elohim (as shown in red):

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We can tell that the Elohistic version of the psalm is a later rewrite because, as shown in blue above, the stanzas in Psalm 14 that have two lines in exception to its overall three-line pattern (perhaps originally a musical “bridge”) have been recast into a single stanza of three lines, no doubt to fit the new tune “mahalath.”  And this has been done by creating a new line out of the consonants of the second two-line stanza, using them to make new words with different meanings!  The consonants are shown in blue below, with the rewrite placed on the line above the original (the different divine names are in purple):

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However, we shouldn’t push the idea too far that different divine names indicate different authors in different kingdoms, because as Psalm 14 itself shows, a single author can use both names for poetic variety; to speak of God either more generally (Elohim) or more specifically in covenant terms (Yahweh); and even for purposes of characterization:  note that it is the “fools” who say there is no Elohim, while Yahweh is the refuge of the poor.

For these reasons, proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have moved away from reliance on divine names, to the extent that they now sometimes call the J document the “Judean” source and the E document the “Ephraimistic” source (using a popular biblical name for the northern kingdom).  To support their view they rely far more on the phenomenon of “doublets” in the Pentateuch, that is, places where the same incident seems to be related twice, from slightly different perspectives.  This phenomenon is illustrated most vividly in cases of doubled accounts of where the name of a person or place came from.

For example, when Abraham entertains the three visitors, one of them tells him that his wife Sarah will bear a son.  She laughs incredulously, and Yahweh (in the person of this visitor) responds, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”  This story explains the derivation of the son’s name, Isaac, which means “laughter.”  But later on, after the child is born, a different explanation for his name is offered:  Sarah exclaims joyfully, Elohim has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Not only do we have two different accounts of how Isaac got his name, the key phrases in these accounts use different divine names, leading Friedman, whose work I discussed last time, to assign them to J and E, respectively.  They also represent different perspectives on Sarah–one less favorable, the other more favorable.

The Pentateuch also offers two different explanations of what happened at the place named Meribah, where, after a quarrel (hence the name), God brought water out of a rock for the Israelites in the wilderness.  In the account in Exodus, Moses strikes the rock at God’s command, and his leadership is vindicated.  But in the account in Numbers, Moses strikes the rock in anger and desperation, and Yahweh interprets this as an act of mistrust and tells Moses as punishment that he will not enter the promised land.  Friedman attributes the former account to E, and the latter to P, who, he says, belonged to a rival priestly order and was not hesitant to diminish Moses.  There are many similar “doublets” in the Pentateuch.

However, one could just as easily argue that cases like these are not actually doubled accounts of the same incidents, but instead accounts of separate incidents that followed one another in Israelite history.  For that matter, one could also warn of the danger of circular reasoning if certain parts of the Pentateuch are first assigned to separate sources, and then the particular emphases found in those parts are argued to be characteristic of those sources and proof that they originated there!

But in any event, these are the kinds of evidences that are typically advanced to support the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents.  Does a person have to choose definitively between this belief and the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?  Or is a way that the two positions can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue?  I’ll explore that question in my final post in this series.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 2)

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Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question–which is really about the authorship of the whole Pentateuch, not just the creation accounts–I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses, such as the account of his death and the various explanations that his contemporaries would not have required.  Recognizing this helps us not to have to ground our confidence in the inspiration and authority of these writings on the belief that Moses wrote every single word of them.

It’s one thing, however, to acknowledge a few likely additions to a body of material that we still consider to have been written almost entirely by Moses; it’s another thing to argue, in keeping with the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, that the Pentateuch was actually woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  In this post I will summarize the basic claims of that position.  In my next post, I will discuss some of the biblical evidence that is offered in support for it.  And in my final post in this series, I will then try to show how the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch can be put in positive and constructive dialogue with the Documentary Hypothesis.

The best popular description I know of that position is found in the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.  He argues that some time before the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C., two complementary accounts of Israelite history from the patriarchs up to the time of Moses, “J” or Yahwist and “E” or Elohist, were composed in the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively.  When refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel escaped from the Assyrians into the southern kingdom of Judah, they brought their historical epic with them, and the two versions were woven together to form the historical portion of the books we know know as Genesis through Numbers.

During the reign of Josiah, Friedman continues, someone else picked up the story starting in the time of Moses and carried it up through the time of that king, finishing the work “around the year 622 B.C.”  This document, “D” or Deuteronomist, eventually comprised the books from Deuteronomy through Kings.

Then, Friedman says, “someone who was alive and writing before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” and who “knew the JE text, in its combined form, intimately” composed or assembled a “collection of Priestly laws and stories . . . as an alternative to JE,” to bring out different themes and emphases as lessons from Israel’s history.  But finally, in what Friedman calls a “great irony,” someone (he believes it was Ezra, upon the return from the Babylonian exile) combined this work, the “P” or Priestly account, with JE and D to produce the continuous work, Genesis through Kings, with which the Old Testament as we know it now opens.

Is there any biblical evidence for this version of the way the Pentateuch (and the next several books of the Bible) were put together?  I’ll look at that question next time.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)

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Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.

Why is it important to study the book of Genesis?

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Q. Why is it important to study the book of Genesis?

This is an excellent and timely question, given the controversy and confusion that can Genesissurround the book of Genesis in our day.  That’s why I answer this question right inside the front cover of my Genesis study guide, even before the title page!  Here’s what I have to say under the heading “Why Read and Study Genesis?”

Sex. Greed. Violence. Deception. Betrayal. Annihilation. And in the midst of it all, God at work to restore a broken world and bring people back into relationship with Himself.

In Genesis, its first book, the Bible hits the ground running and shows us the kind of people we could see today on the news, or meet on the street, wrestling with God to find happiness, success and love in a world gone wrong. They struggle. They suffer. They do right, and they do wrong. With God’s help, sometimes they fight their way through to a happy ending. And God builds on the struggles, the suffering and the good and bad choices to start making a way for anyone in the world to find their way back to Him.

Maybe you’ve never read the book of Genesis. Or maybe you’ve tried, but never got past the opening because of arguments you’ve heard about Adam and Eve and evolution. You owe it to yourself to take another look. From a perspective deeply immersed in real human life, Genesis gives us the big picture of what kind of world God wants this to be, how it became something else instead, and what God has been doing ever since, by meeting people just where they are, to make things right again.

The main purpose of the book of Genesis is to explain how one family and its descendants came to have a special role in God’s plans for all of humanity. The book first shows God creating a world of order and harmony. This order and harmony are shattered when people turn away from God. The world is filled with violence and injustice that God has to take extreme measures to restrain. But then God begins to restore the beautiful world He’d designed by entering into a relationship with one person who trusts and believes in Him in a special way: Abraham. God extends this relationship down through the generations of Abraham’s descendants. Eventually they grow into a tribe that could become the beginning of a restored human community—if they could just live up to God’s friendship and favor.

This study guide will take you through Genesis story by story and character by character. You won’t see Noah in a bathrobe collecting cuddly animals for the ark. You won’t be asked to debate the age of the earth. But you will meet people just like you being disappointed and betrayed and rescued and blessed as the world God sets in motion goes careening off into the future without any brakes. Fasten your seat belt.

I hope this helps answer your question, and that it whets your appetite to dive into this challenging, engaging, and fascinating book!

Are people “filled with the Holy Spirit” once or multiple times?

Q. Why are the apostles “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they pray for boldness after Peter and John are released from prison, when they have just recently received the Spirit on Pentecost? Isn’t the receiving of the Holy Spirit a one-time thing as opposed to how it was in the Old Testament times? If there are deeper levels / experiences, what do they consist of?

El Greco, “Pentecost” (detail). If the apostles were already filled with the Holy Spirit on this occasion, why did they need to be filled again?

As I understand it, on the day of Pentecost, it is the community of Jesus’ followers that is filled with the Holy Spirit, as the “new temple” of the new covenant.

Under the old covenant, when the tabernacle was first set up in the wilderness, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle,” to such an extent thatMoses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”  Later, when Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem and brought the ark of the covenant there, similarly “the cloud filled the temple of the Lord, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.”

Unfortunately the Israelites broke this covenant and they were conquered and exiled, and the first temple was destroyed.  Shortly before this, as Ezekiel saw in one of his visions, “the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim [i.e. upon the ark], where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.”  As Ezekiel looked on, “the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple” and it was escorted away out of the city by angelic beings.  (I’m always horrified when I read about this departure of God’s glory and Spirit!)

There is no record in the Bible of God’s glory filling the second temple, which was rebuilt in various stages after the return from exile.  I believe this is because, under the promised new covenant, the community of believers was to constitute the new temple.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, addressing the community corporately, not the members individually, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”  Paul wrote similarly to the Ephesians:

“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

So this is what I think was happening on the day of Pentecost.  As I put it in the title of a sermon I preached one Pentecost Sunday when I was a pastor, it is the “filling of the new temple.”  This is something different from the filling of an individual believer by the Holy Spirit.  I believe that such an individual filling takes place in one sense on a one-time basis, but that in another sense it can happen on a repeated basis.

Everyone who becomes a committed follower of Jesus receives the Holy Spirit as a gift, to equip and empower them to serve and to live a holy life.  So this one-time filling is not a matter of us getting more of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, it’s a matter of the Holy Spirit getting more of us.  Christians throughout the ages have reported an experience that sometimes goes by the name of “complete surrender,” in which they realize that Jesus must have unchallenged lordship in their lives.  They therefore surrender their wills to do only God’s will.  And many report that concurrently something happens that they call the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  (“Baptism” is simply the Greek word for “to fill by immersing,” so this is just another way of saying “the filling of the Holy Spirit.”)  The point is that the Holy Spirit, who has now been given free access to the whole being, fills all those areas in our lives that had once been closed off.

This experience is known by other names as well, such as the “Second Blessing,” but it does not have to come a long time after a person’s first commitment to Christ.  Churches in the Pentecostal tradition associate it with receiving the “gift of languages” (which I discuss in this post), but the experience was well attested in church history long before the Pentecostal movement began in 1906.  Basically it is a one-time “filling” with the Holy Spirit that occurs when we open our entire life for the Spirit to fill.

This is different from the kind of “filling” we might need and experience on a recurring basis when the Spirit makes use of us in a special way as an instrument of God’s work on earth.  This recurring kind of filling is, as you say, described in the Old Testament, as well as in New Testament passages like the one in which the apostles pray for boldness.  These are those situations in which, as I explain in this post, it is said that “the Spirit of Yahweh clothed herself with” a certain person, in effect “putting that person on” like a garment so that they could become God’s instrument.

Even when this particular language is not present, and we hear simply about the person being “filled with the Spirit,” the idea is the same.  A special measure of God’s presence and empowerment is needed for a particular task, and so it is granted for that occasion.

I hope these distinctions are helpful in answering your question.

Does praying in tongues keep the devil from eavesdropping?

Q. I’m reading a book on prayer and one thing it says is that speaking in tongues is a purer form of worship because it excludes our carnal thoughts. It says that another benefit is that Satan will not understand the language. Wouldn’t Satan be well versed in all languages?

When it comes to questions like this, I think it’s important to follow the principle, “Do not go beyond what is written,” as Paul advised the Corinthians. He meant not to select or reject teachers based on issues that the Scriptures do not identify as essential. But I think his advice captures equally well the importance of making the case for or against spiritual practices based on what the Bible actually says about them, not on anything the Bible doesn’t say.

The question here has to do with “speaking in tongues,” that is, speaking in a language that one has acquired directly as a gift from God, rather than through upbringing, immersion, or formal study.  This really is the “gift of languages,” and that is what I will call it in the rest of this post, since the Greek word for “tongue” and “language” is the same and the sense of the word in this context is clearly “language,” as in, “my mother tongue is English.”  I personally believe that this gift is attested not just in the Scriptures, but also throughout church history, and that it remains available to believers today.

Maronite Pentecost icon

As I understand it from Scripture, the gift of languages is given for at least threepurposes.  One is to allow the good news about Jesus to be proclaimed in a language that the hearers will understand, even if the messengers don’t know that language.  This happened most famously on the day of Pentecost, when “Jews from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem and “each one heard their own language being spoken” as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak those languages. But I’ve also heard present-day missionaries describe how, when they went to a region whose language or dialect they didn’t speak, their words supernaturally came out in the form their listeners could understand.

Another purpose for the gift of languages, according to the Bible, is to bring an authoritative word to a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  When a message is spoken in a language that is given as a supernatural gift, and it is then interpreted by someone who has that ability equally as a gift, this attests to the divine source of the message.  Even so, Paul tells the Corinthians, “The others should weigh carefully what is said,” testing it against the wisdom and teaching of the Scriptures before accepting it as a word from God.  I believe we are given an example of this process in the Old Testament when Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall.

The third purpose for the gift of languages that I find explained in the Bible is for prayer.  I believe the rationale for this application of the gift is the same one that Paul gives in Romans in the case of prayer that takes the form of wordless yearning: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.”  In this case God gives not just the language, but the words themselves, as a spiritual gift that helps a person pray more effectively when they otherwise wouldn’t know what to pray for.

But notice what the Bible doesn’t say about this.  It doesn’t say anywhere that praying in a divinely granted language is some form of “secret code” between us and God that the devil can’t understand.  So I don’t think we should claim this as a benefit of the practice.  “Not going beyond what is written” in this case saves us from having to speculate about how many languages the devil understands and this frees our energies for reflection on what the Bible actually does say.

As for whether praying in a divinely granted language “excludes our carnal thoughts,” it makes sense that this would be the case, but we should not see this as an unmixed blessing.  Paul notes that “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  In other words, because he does not understand the language he is speaking, he is not learning from the Holy Spirit’s example how to pray more genuinely and effectively in situations like the one he’s facing. 

Paul explains in his second letter to the Corinthians how important it is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” While it might be advantageous in the short term, particularly in a dire situation that we don’t even know how to pray about, to bypass our carnal thoughts and immature tendencies, in the long term we are called to develop a spiritual mind and mature character.  In other words, if gifting us with a prayer language is one of the ways in which the “Spirit helps us in our weakness,” that should not be something that keeps us from ever addressing that weaknesses.  We need to take our carnal thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, not continually bypass them.  But I think we’ll find that the more mature and obedient we become, the more we will follow Christ into situations where we desperately need His help–so there will be a positive self-reinforcing cycle here.

All things considered, I wouldn’t say from the Bible that praying in a divinely granted language is “purer” or “better” than other forms of prayer. But it is one genuine expression of a gift that God wants to be exercised by those to whom it is given to build up the whole body of Christ.

I hope this is helpful!

A visual introduction to the Bible’s career as a book

Q.  Thank you for your wonderful blog. I keep coming back to it, as it inspires me in my writing and research. I know it’s a tough job to keep a blog going and I truly appreciate it.  I wanted to touch base with you because I recently helped create what I think is an interesting research graphic called “The Most Popular Book of All Time,” which I think would be of value to your readers. (I say that because as one of your readers, it’s a topic that interests me.)  If you agree, I would be excited to see you post it to your site and share with your other regular visitors. Thanks and regards.

Thank you very much for your kind words about my blog.  They’re very encouraging and I appreciate them.

I’m happy to refer my readers to your research graphic, which can be viewed by clicking on the link above.  Let me post a detail from it here to give them some idea of what it includes.  This is the first section, which compares the number of copies of the Bible distributed so far with the numbers of other widely circulated books:

How It Stacks UpIt is interesting and helpful to have this kind of visual presentation of information relating to the Bible.  Other sections compare the size of the Bible with other long works (it’s almost 50% longer than Atlas Shrugged, for example); list the longest and shortest books, chapters, and verses in the Bible; chart the progress of Bible translation into the world’s languages; place leading modern translations on a continuum from word-for-word to thought-for-thought to paraphrase; and trace the progress of the Bible’s translation into vernacular languages along a historical timeline.

One fact I would like to clarify is that the chapters we know today are those that were developed by Stephen Langton in Paris around AD 1200, not the different scheme that was introduced by Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro in 1238.

You are clearly gifted at researching information and presenting it clearly in visual form, so let me offer you a challenge.  I’d like to encourage you to develop an additional research graphic about the Bible.  “The Most Popular Book of All Time” provides invaluable information about the Bible’s history as a book, but this is still the view from “outside the covers,” as it were.  There’s such a pressing need for biblical literacy in our day that I hope you will follow up with the view from “inside the covers.” How about introducing people to the characters and events of the Bible in a visual way that will allow them to become familiar with them and recognize their place in the overall biblical story?

In Brian McLaren’s novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, the character named Kerry admits, “I heard all kinds of Bible stories as a kid, but I have no idea how they fit together–which comes first, that sort of thing.  To me, they’re just isolated episodes in a larger story I never really understood.”  Many people today could make the same admission.  Someone needs to put together a really good research graphic that would help people see how it all fits together.

I think maybe you’re the person to do that.  And if you do, I’ll be glad to feature that graphic here as well.  But thanks already, very much, for this one!

Does God choose who will go to heaven?

Q. Does God know who are to go to heaven (those with His seal)? Or it is an individual who makes a choice between light and darkness?

You’re asking a question that thoughtful people of faith have wrestled with throughout the centuries: What ultimately determines whether a person is saved, God’s sovereign choice of them, or their response to God?

I believe that this is one of those mysteries of our faith that we must respond to by embracing both sides of a paradox.  If we let go of either side, we lose something essential.

We need to hold onto the idea that our salvation is entirely the work of God, because none of us human beings can save ourselves.  This principle would extend even to the act of choice:  we are not even capable of choosing to be saved because of the deeply imprinted effects of sin on all areas of our being, including the will.  So God must choose us.

However, we must also hold onto the idea that we are morally responsible in some way to respond to the overtures that God makes towards us, that is, to the gracious influences that God brings into our lives to lead us to salvation.  Our inability to save ourselves does not absolve us of the responsibility to seek salvation and to accept it when it is offered.

I believe that the Bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility—sometimes in the same breath!  For example, Peter told the crowds in his Pentecost sermon, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God [divine sovereignty], you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men [human moral responsibility].”

So we need to embrace both sides of the paradox to have a full understanding of where our salvation comes from.

It’s been said that as you walk towards the gates of heaven, you see written above them, “Whosoever will to the Lord may come.”  But after you walk through the gates, you look back and see written above them, “Chosen from the foundation of the world.”  I think that about sums it up.

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