February was a busy month in our household, but it is now time to get back to The Bible & Ancient Science by Denis Lamoureux.
What is the message of the Bible? Denis finds that for him “reading the Bible is a mystical experience. It is a spiritual encounter between us and the Lord, facilitated by the inspired words in Holy Scripture.” (p. 64) But lives are changed by the message of the Bible, not by a legalistic or literalistic rendering of precise words. Words, by the way, written and spoken in ancient languages and into ancient cultures, using images of the day.
Consider Mark 4:30-32.
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”(NIV)
The mustard seed and mustard plant provided an image that was immediately understood by the original audience. How many ordinary Americans, on the other hand, know what a mustard seed looks like or a mustard plant for that matter? Isn’t mustard that yellow stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle?
Pine trees and pine nuts, oak trees and acorns are images that most North Americans will understand immediately. I found two versions of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” online. In the YouVersion we read (and this is the version referenced by Denis in his book):
“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”
In contrast, The Bible Gateway version has:
“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like an acorn. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge oak tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”
This is the version I originally found online when preparing to write this post and had to search (thank you Google) to find the pine nut reference that Denis uses in his book.
Depending on where you live, the pine nut or the acorn makes a much better connection with the audience and it is these images that Peterson uses to make connection and convey the message to his audience. Jesus told down-to-earth stories to his audience, and a paraphrase that conveys the message rather than the particular ancient images can be very effective. My father-in-law, toward the end of his active ministry, found Peterson’s paraphrase particularly effective when reaching our to young people who were not used to “bible language”. Although I generally study more literal translations – I, too, have found that Peterson’s paraphrase provides important new insight at times. The point that Jesus makes in Mark 4:30-32 is the same in all of the versions quoted above. There is an important place in the church for paraphrase translations that aim to present the scriptures in the words of common people.
The bible was written into a culture and to an audience with an understanding of cosmology that was significantly different from our understanding today. The message from God was conveyed in words and ideas that they understood. The intention was to bring people closer to God, not to correct ideas of cosmology and biology. Here then, is an exercise worth thinking through. Is it possible to paraphrase Genesis 1 in a manner that conveys the essential message of the text, while using 21st century ideas of cosmology and biology rather than ideas from the tenth or twentieth century BC?
To begin this exercise, we must first think carefully about the essential message of the chapter. Denis suggests that the essential messages are: (1) that God is the creator of the world – of everything in the universe. (2) That the creation is good. (3) That God created the diversity of plant and animal life on the planet. (4) That humans and only humans are created in the image of God. (5) That humans, male and female, have an important God-given role in the world above all fish, birds, and land animals.
Given this message, it is relatively straightforward to write a paraphrase that is consistent with the message and with our current understanding of science. Denis provides examples on pp. 73 and 74 of his book. If you believe that the message and intent of Genesis 1 is to provide a blow by blow account of creation, no such paraphrase will seem satisfactory. If, on the other hand, Denis has the essential message right, such a paraphrase will lend important insight and may provide a useful tool to help reach many in our world today. There are many reasons to think that the intent is not to provide a blow-by-blow account, and that Denis has identified many of the most important elements of the message.
What do you think?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.