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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Luke 18:18-19 - "good" translation

You are probably familiar with this gospel story:
18. A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.
“No one is good—except God alone.
20. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not
commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall
not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor
your father and mother.’”
21. “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he
said.
22. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You
still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and
give to the poor, and you will have treasure in
heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23. When he heard this, he became very sad, because
he was very wealthy. 24. Jesus looked at him
and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the
kingdom of God! 25. Indeed, it is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich
to enter the kingdom of God.” (TNIV)
Have you ever stopped to wonder about the exchange in verses 18-19? A ruler addresses Jesus Jesus as "good teacher" and then asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus doesn't answer his question immediately. He first questions the ruler about his calling Jesus good and says that only God is good. Then he goes on to address the ruler's question.

For me, this is another one of those passages like Matt. 18:10, which I addressed in the preceding post, which bumps for me. There is something missing in the translation (and its underlying Greek) which I *think* was there implicitly in the original exchange. For me, from my cultural background, it seems like it would be a good (!) thing for someone to address Jesus as a good teacher. Yet, Jesus questions the ruler about calling him good (which is not exactly the same as calling him a good teacher) and says that only God is good. I definitely consider that Jesus was a good teacher. And as I understand goodness, Jesus was definitely a good person. God is good also.

What do you think is going on in the exchange about "good"? Do you think Jesus was trying to make some point, other than the obvious, that God is good? And what did Jesus mean by saying that *only* God is good?

What is missing for any Bible readers like me who sense that something is missing for us to understand Jesus' point about "good"? Do you think that the ruler understood Jesus' point? How about others who were listening in? What point do you think we are supposed to get from that exchange? How and where can we communicate that point to users of our Bible translations?

19 Comments:

At Sun Apr 22, 12:57:00 AM, Blogger minternational said...

That reply of Jesus has always intrigued me too, Wayne. The only suggestion I have is that Jesus is probing the ruler's view of him (Jesus) - if he is calling Jesus good and only God is good, is he implying something about who Jesus is? Has he come to Jesus aligning him as closely as possible to God?

As for bringing that out in a translation, I don't have any obvious solution - maybe it was meant to get the man pondering too, in which maybe it's best to leave it as a slight conundrum to us?

 
At Sun Apr 22, 11:14:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand what you are saying in the post. The gospels are famously full of parables and difficult sayings. Now, these verses can be interpreted in different ways. For example, from a historical-critical view, the verse you cite has a certain meaning in late Second Temple Judaism; but it has been interpreted differently by different commentators. For example, Augustine had a particular interpretation (that Jesus was good only in so far as he was divine), Cyril of Alexandria had a different interpretation (that God was the only unchangeable good), etc.

Now, if a translator imposed her own interpretation (based on the latest scholarship) of the historical-critical meaning of the passage into the translation, that might make it difficult to read a different interpretation into the text; thus preventing a reader from understanding later interpretations or from finding new meanings in the text. But I would argue that the study of later interpretations; and even the study of finding new meanings in the text is a valid way of reading Scripture.

For example, a few weeks ago, you quoted the suffering servant passage of Isaiah. Here is a passage which in its original context was referring to Israel; but a second understanding of the verse is as a Messianic passage. Should a translator address the text in such a way that the first meaning, for example, is the only one that can be read into the text? A translator who wrote the text in such a way that one of these readings was impossible would not be doing her readers a service.

Similarly, the text itself may contain metaphors which could be explained, but may have multiple interpretations. For example, in Song of Songs, the text itself understood in the context of Ancient Near Eastern literature is a highly erotic account -- one which if all metaphors are clearly explained, would make the text perhaps "too hot to handle." A traditional reading of the book, for example in the Targums, is that the book is a discourse on the love between God and His people. Thus, the Aramaic translation is several times the length of the Hebrew and has a highly different character. Later, early and medieval Christian writers adapted Targum Canticles to bring out the aspect they saw as the "meaning" of the text: a hidden account of the love between Christ and the Church.

Finally, I must say that modern scholarly consensus often changes on the meaning of a particular passage. The book of Job, with its mysterious passages and many different modern interpretations, is perhaps the prime example here.

Now, some translators address this question by making the text into a study bible. Several translations (the NAB, NJB, and NET Bible come immediately to mind) come with an attached set of footnotes that effective make the translation into a study bible. Nonetheless, even these annotated translations separate role of explanation from the role of interpretation. And that is useful: for example, when the NET Bible's footnote to "good" in this verse misses the point, in my opinion.

Now, I think translations of the following form are perfectly legitimate: (1) A study Bible with annotations (clearly separated from the text); (2) A translation with extensive interpretive notes (again, clearly separated from the text); (3) A translation that explicitly declares it is paraphristic and follows a certain interpretive tradition (e.g., Jewish translations that follow Rashi or Nachmanides or such -- or perhaps an Evangelical interpretation, such as Peterson's The Message) and does not claim to be a neutral translation; or (4) A translation that gives multiple readings of a particular passage according to different readings or different translation traditions (particularly those which are historically important in the development of Christianity: the Vulgate and the Septuagint).

These issues are particularly important with Protestantism and other sola scriptura faith systems, since they rely on having individuals read a translation in their "heart language" and extract moral, theological, philosophical, and spiritual lessons directly from the translated text. A translator who interferes with that process, even under the banner of making the text more accessible, potentially deepens the divide between the reader and one of his main channels towards understanding God's will.

I must say also that it is not always clear whether a particular passage was ambiguous or clear in the original language, presenting another set of issues.

Now one stratagem often recommended to readers on this blog and elsewhere is to sidestep this problem by consulting multiple translations. While this is also a valid way of reading Scripture, I often think that a reader is better served by reading the translation together with a critical commentary. I note with interest that even among conservative Protestant publishers, study Bibles are the most rapidly growing group of Bibles (meriting a separate grouping in the CBA bestseller list), indicating that many readers are adopting this strategy.

Let me summarize my main points:

* Passages can be interpreted in different ways.

* Understanding of passages that involve extensive interpretation are better served by annotations or other commentary that is isolated from the text.

* Alternatively, a text can incorporate extensive interpretation if it makes clear its translation philosophy and approach.

* Reading a Bible together with a commentary is a valid and useful way of reading Scripture.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 03:21:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, I can only agree that "the verse you cite has a certain meaning in late Second Temple Judaism". But since you do not enlighten us as to what that meaning was, I will have to follow Augustine, Cyril and many others in suggesting my own interpretation.

And that is that Jesus' point is that he cannot simply be categorised as a "good teacher" while his divine claims are ignored. Either he is the Son of Man sent by God as he claims, or he is a deceiver and not good at all. The poster I remember for a student evangelistic meeting years ago says it all: "Jesus: Mad, Bad or God?" There is no viable "good teacher" alternative.

Now whether that was precisely Jesus' point I can't be sure. But fortunately for translation purposes we don't need to be too precise. I don't think we can really do anything other than translate this more or less literally, and allow the reader or preacher to draw implications like mine, or Augustine's or Cyril's.

It is also worth nothing that Jesus very commonly replied to questions with other questions. It is a technique which modern politicians have learned from him. Most haven't learned much else from him! But Jesus differs from the politicians in that he usually answers the question in the end - although not in Luke 20:1-8 where he was dealing with politicians trying to trap him.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 03:38:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I'm not sure I understand what you are saying in the post.

For me, there is something missing for the exchange I discussed to cohere, to make sense. I ask all the questions I do to see if others can make some sense of the exchange just from the words that we have in translation and in Greek. My goal is to stimulate people to think about the text. I'm hoping that discussing examples like this will help people not simply read a text, but question it, wonder what it means, try to discover possible interpretations that will allow the parts of the text to make sense in relation to each other.

I appreciate your bringing in the fact of different interpretations from different time periods and from different religious traditions. All of these can help.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 04:00:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Mr. Kirk -- the reading you give is certainly a valid one, and one that has been suggested by previous commentators. Yet it faces a challenge as well -- and here, for the sake of discussion, let me consider the parallel passage at Mark 10:18. No where in Mark does Jesus equate himself with God (in contrast, the fourth gospel has several declarations of the divinity of Jesus, e.g., John 14:8-11.) Thus an assertion here seems oddly placed.

Even more, consider: in the entire Talmud, a work in excess of 10 times the size of the Bible, where every page relates stories of the rabbis, there is never an instance of a rabbi being termed "Good Master." Consider this Gedankenexperiment: Suppose, such a rabbi was to be addressed as "Good Master". Would it be inappropriate for him to reply as Jesus did: No one is good but God? Yet, in such a case, it would not imply the divinity of the rabbi.

This suggests that while your interpretation of the verse is not inconsistent with Jesus's divinity, it cannot by itself be used as a prooftext for Jesus's divinity; alternate interpretations are also valid.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 04:06:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Mr. Leman, it is certainly fair game to ask people for their interpretations, but my previous comment was specifically a response to the last question in your post:

How and where can we communicate that point to users of our Bible translations?

 
At Sun Apr 22, 05:06:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, if you read my comment carefully, you will note that I said nothing about the divinity of Christ, but only about his claim to be the Son of Man, a title which he uses several times in all four gospels.

But you make an interesting point about the rabbis. Why, I wonder, were they never called "Good teacher", in the Talmud which is later than the time of Jesus? It is possible that this term was avoided simply because it had been used of Jesus, or because they took on board Jesus' criticism of its use. This would imply a taboo only from after the time of Jesus. Or maybe there are other reasons we don't know why this became a taboo after Jesus' time.

But if the taboo actually predates Jesus, we then have to ask why this ruler broke the taboo when speaking to Jesus, and indeed we would conclude that Jesus is asking that very question. Was the man breaking the taboo because he understood Jesus to be divine, or at least sent by God in a special way? Jesus must have been probing what he really meant, trying to encourage a more explicit declaration of faith. The problem with following this argument is that we have no way to know if this taboo was actually in force in Jesus' time. Nevertheless, the idea that Jesus was trying to elicit an explicit declaration of faith seems attractive to me.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Lingamish has posted an interesting perspective on this question here.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 06:10:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anon. responded:

Mr. Leman, it is certainly fair game to ask people for their interpretations, but my previous comment was specifically a response to the last question in your post:

How and where can we communicate that point to users of our Bible translations?


Fair enough. I should have written:

"How and where can we communicate a point that you understand to users of our Bible translations?"

 
At Sun Apr 22, 10:03:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

Anon said: "Even more, consider: in the entire Talmud, a work in excess of 10 times the size of the Bible, where every page relates stories of the rabbis, there is never an instance of a rabbi being termed "Good Master." Consider this Gedankenexperiment: Suppose, such a rabbi was to be addressed as "Good Master". Would it be inappropriate for him to reply as Jesus did: No one is good but God? Yet, in such a case, it would not imply the divinity of the rabbi.

This suggests that while your interpretation of the verse is not inconsistent with Jesus's divinity, it cannot by itself be used as a prooftext for Jesus's divinity; alternate interpretations are also valid."

I've heard the bit on the Talmud before from a good source (to help back it up, since I'm not sure how to find out if it is true, since I don't have the Talmud nor can I read it).

I think though, in the context, Jesus is trying to show the ruler that he [the young ruler] is not good. Notice he brings in the law - then tells the ruler to sell all and give to the poor. The young ruler thinks he, himself, is good. Jesus says, no, you are not. And I'll prove it to you (you can't sell everything you have, because you love that more than your fellow man, and more than God - and, as I will go to in this next part, because you don't believe that I am God).

Also, I think Jesus is trying to get the young ruler to think about what he is saying - do you believe that I am good? Only God is good.
That only God is good is simple - "We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight. We all wither like a leaf; our sins carry us away like the wind." (Isaiah 64:6)

"Everyone rejects God; they are all morally corrupt. None of them does what is right, not even one!" (Psalm 14:3)

So, there are "good" people - but to God, all are evil.

When a non-Christian helps an old lady across the street, that is sin, because it is not done for the glory of God, and therefore is stealing what is rightfully God's.

Also, those who are not saved have no faith in God therefore: "But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23)

So I think in translation a simple "good teacher" suffices - because anyone who thinks about goodness as laid out in God's word, will understand what Jesus says is true - and it might have even been more apparent in those days, since as was said, no one said "good teacher".

But that is speculation - and I'm not sure how far we should go with that in preaching or teaching, let alone translation.

 
At Sun Apr 22, 10:30:00 PM, Blogger tom sheepandgoats said...

Was Jesus helping his questioner to see that he was God? [only God is good & you have called me good....hence?...] Or is he drawing a sharp distinction? [Don't call me good. Only God is good.] Either view is possible from the exchange, and I doubt better translation would clear it up.

The context of Jesus' other words would clear it up. Most important, I would think, would be historical context. That's why I agree with that comment of Anonymous:

"Even more, consider: in the entire Talmud, a work in excess of 10 times the size of the Bible, where every page relates stories of the rabbis, there is never an instance of a rabbi being termed "Good Master." Consider this Gedankenexperiment: Suppose, such a rabbi was to be addressed as "Good Master". Would it be inappropriate for him to reply as Jesus did: No one is good but God? Yet, in such a case, it would not imply the divinity of the rabbi."

I think it a great stretch to conclude that this passage equates Jesus and God. God's Son, yes, but God? Joseph of Arimathea was also described as good. [a good and righteous man, Luke 23:50] We all know he was not God.

 
At Mon Apr 23, 05:29:00 AM, Blogger teknomom said...

For what it's worth, I think the whole point of Jesus' encounter with the ruler is that the rich, who have a lot to lose, have a difficult time giving it all up, while the lost have no difficulty giving up what little they have. It seems to me that the ruler was trying to say he was as good as Jesus, given the fact that he completely ignored Jesus' question about why he called Him good, and that he considered his adherance to the law as his goodness. In other words, "I'm at least as good as Jesus, so why should I follow Him?". If that's the case, then Jesus' reply basically said "If you really think you're as good as me, then go sell all your possessions". So the ruler ignored Jesus' question because the answer was too painful.

Quoting nathan wells:
----------------------------------------
When a non-Christian helps an old lady across the street, that is sin, because it is not done for the glory of God, and therefore is stealing what is rightfully God's.

Also, those who are not saved have no faith in God therefore: "But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23)
----------------------------------------

You made some good points otherwise, but I have to disagree on the concept being put forth in the words quoted.

Romans 2:14 says that "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law". So it is in fact possible for the unsaved to do "good" things. Otherwise we have the nonsensical situation of charging the lost with sin for simply living and breathing. Conversely, the saved cannot claim to be actively glorifying God at all times simply by virtue of our having been saved. To glorify God is to live and do and believe all that honors him as an act of will. This is what the bulk of the NT exhorts us for, which would be unneccessary if we were already glorifying God without effort.

I think it is logically fallacious to tie Romans 14:23 to the belief that the lost continually fail to glorify God simply by being unsaved. In context, that verse is aimed at believers. What Paul is driving at is that believers sin when they violate their consciences. It has nothing whatever to do with the lost. In other words, you syllogism could be stated thus:

-- whatever is not from faith is sin (true)

-- the lost do not have faith (true)

therefore whatever the lost do is sin (false, because the Bible never states this)

Just an observation :-)

 
At Mon Apr 23, 10:10:00 AM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

teknomom,

I guess when the Bible says things such as, "We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight. We all wither like a leaf; our sins carry us away like the wind." (Isaiah 64:6)

Or:

"Everyone rejects God; they are all morally corrupt. None of them does what is right, not even one!" (Psalm 14:3)

I get the idea that no one does what is right, not even one!
And that all our good-works are filthy rags before God.

I am not sure how to get around that...are these verses plainly saying that all that we do is sin?

Are these not the statements that you claimed do not exist? (you said, "therefore whatever the lost do is sin (false, because the Bible never states this)")

No one is good, but God.

Does the Bible ever say we can do good? Would that not cause God to have to grant me favor based on my works?

 
At Mon Apr 23, 10:48:00 AM, Blogger teknomom said...

Nathan,

You seem to have missed the point: that the Bible says we ALL sin, even the saved, and that it is both illogical and unscriptural to conclude that everything the lost do is sin **by taking any verse out of context** while ignoring the sin the saved still commit. I wasy trying to point out the fact that since the saved sin too, then we cannot call it "glorifying God" just because we are saved!

At any rate, I did not intend to start a debate on calvinistic notions of total inability, only to point out that the premises you presented do not support your conclusion.

 
At Mon Apr 23, 02:35:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

teknomom,

I just have never heard an argument like yours before so I was interested to hear more and to see how you believe the Word of God explains what you have said it does.
Sorry if I came on too strong :)
I just wanted to know a little more about why you view what I said to be unbiblical and illogical. Because if it is, I desire to be biblical.

 
At Mon Apr 23, 04:06:00 PM, Blogger teknomom said...

Nathan,

Perhaps I was too cryptic in my initial response. I tend to boil things down to syllogisms and think they're self-explanatory, so let me see if I can elaborate without making what I'm trying to say more confusing ;-)

You seem to be arguing that everything the unsaved do is necessarily sinful, yet even the saved are sinful but "glorify god" simply by virtue of being saved. If I misunderstood then please clarify. What I'm saying here is based upon those points.

If the poetic passages you quoted (Ps. 14:3, Isaiah 64:6) are to be taken as literally true of all mankind without exception, this creates two problems:

1-- the need to show that poetic exaggerations can be taken literally and universally
2-- the need to explain scriptures that say the opposite

Point 1 is highly debatable at best and would be most difficult to support. If you have such support I'd be most interested in seeing it, since I'm not aware of any convincing arguments for it.

Point 2 can be represented by scriptures such as the following (I didn't quote the verses since the post was getting long):

Genesis 6:9, John 1:47, Acts 13:22, Hebrews 11:4-5, James 5:16, 2 Peter 2:7


So the scriptures tell us of righteous people, yet also say none are righteous. The solution, as I see it, is that poetic exaggerations cannot be taken always as both literal and universal. Clearly, "good" and "bad" traits are seen in people throughout the Bible, in both the saved and the lost. And of course, if we only always use the word "good" in comparison to God we'll always fall short. But I don't think the scriptures always compare us to God. Since even God has called some people "righteous" then surely we can too.

In your other response you stated "Does the Bible ever say we can do good? Would that not cause God to have to grant me favor based on my works?"

This could easily get us into a works-salvation debate, which I don't want to get into in somebody's blog, but let me say this: There is salvation, and then there is judgment. Judgment is the payback we get for our deeds; it is a "wage" we earn (Rom. 6:23). But both the saved and the unsaved will be judged, so both have "works". The saved are judged as described in 1 Cor. 3 and the lost as described in Rev. 20.

Salvation, on the other hand, is a gift, and nothing can be both a gift and a wage. Romans 4:4 says, "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation" and Eph. 2:9 says, "not by works, so that no one can boast." So we must not confuse that which relates to the gift of salvation, and that which relates to the wages of works.

Of course God cannot be made obligated to do anything by anyone else, but he is obligated to act according to his own nature. And it is well within his sovereignty to grant that people can earn the "wages" of their deeds. In other words, he obligates himself to reward us for good deeds. So yes, God, by his own decree, can be obligated to grant rewards for the saved or punishment for the lost based upon deeds.

What that all boils down to is that we can do "good" or "bad" and be paid for it accordingly, but salvation is a gift which nobody can earn but only accept by faith. Don't know if that helps, but I did try.

 
At Tue Apr 24, 07:54:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

This is one of those cases where the Greek will be just as bewildering. It's not the change from Greek to English that makes it strange. It's the content itself that Jesus is bringing in that's strange and unexpected. You have to work to figure out what he's getting at. But you have to do it in the original, so it would be strange to make our translation remove that feature of the original.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 06:43:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

One issue that no one has mentioned is Matthew's correction to the passage:

16 Καὶ ἰδοὺ εἷς προσελθὼν αὐτῷ εἶπεν· διδάσκαλε, τί ἀγαθὸν ποιήσω ἵνα σχῶ ζωὴν αἰώνιον; 17 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· τί με ἐρωτᾷς περὶ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ; εἷς ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθός· εἰ δὲ θέλεις εἰς τὴν ζωὴν

16 And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (NASB)

If we assume Markan priority (which I do), and if we assume the writer of the gospel attributed to Matthew is actually the disciple Levi/Matthew (debatable, but essentially I do) then of the three synoptics, Matthew is the only eyewitness and perhaps is making a corrective to Mark's language of the same passage.

Here's the question--can the text as it appears in Mark (and essentially followed by Luke) also mean the same thing that Matthew records? Did Matthew, perhaps see a need to make the statements MORE clear than what Mark recorded?

 
At Sat Apr 28, 08:45:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

This is how that section is rendered in "The Better Life Bible":

"After the children left, a wealthy community leader addressed Jesus as a good teacher and asked,

'How can I enjoy life as God intended? Is there something special I should do?'

"Jesus replied,

'Since you addressed me as a good teacher, you must realize that my advice comes from God.'

 

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