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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Subtle heresies in Hebrews 2:14

Prompted by a discussion on the b-trans list, I looked at some versions of Hebrews 2:14, and was startled to discover two different heresies!

Here is the verse in KJV:
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
What is the problem here, you may well ask? This is certainly hard to understand, especially for modern readers, but where are the heresies? Look carefully at "took part of the same". "The same" must be "flesh and blood", human nature. So does this verse say that Jesus took only part of human nature, not all of it? That would clearly be heresy, by the standard of the ancient creeds. But the verse certainly doesn't mean that in the original Greek. And almost certainly the KJV translators (who were certainly orthodox Trinitarians) didn't intend the meaning "part of human nature". Rather, in the English of that time "took part of" meant what we would now say as "took part in" or "partook of". The problem here is with language change: what in the 16th or 17th century was an accurate translation has become an inaccurate and misleading one.

So then, what is the alternative? I am sorry to say that the translators of NIV and TNIV expunged this heresy but retained another one which is even more subtly present in the KJV rendering. Here is the verse in TNIV (the relevant part is the same in NIV):
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—
ESV, following RSV, is no better:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
What is the problem here? It is very obvious when you spot it! The words "shared in their humanity" or "partook of the same things", with the past tense, implies that Jesus no longer shares humanity. But the teaching of the Bible and the church has always been that the risen Jesus was human, "flesh and bones" (Luke 24:39, compare "flesh and blood" in Hebrews 2:14), and remains so in heaven. Is the author of Hebrews in fact saying anything different? I don't think so. The Greek verb here, μετέσχεν meteschen, is in an aorist tense, not an imperfect which would imply that Jesus shared humanity for a time. The meaning is rather that Jesus came to share with us in humanity, became incarnate, with no suggestion that this situation ended with his death or resurrection.

So the New Living Translation gets this right:
Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.
Indeed, as Hebrews 4:14-16 teaches us, it is important for our continued Christian walk that we still have a human Jesus in heaven, not "a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses" (4:15 TNIV US edition), but one who remains human as well as divine and so to whom we can draw near with confidence.


At Wed Jun 27, 06:54:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

I agree with your original concern about the "part of" because of language differences. However, I don't see the problem in your second concern.

Peter wrote: The words "shared in their humanity" or "partook of the same things", with the past tense, implies that Jesus no longer shares humanity.

As a reader of the text, I don't see that the past tense "implies" anything like that. Rather, it states that he did share in their humanity. I get nothing from that text that the sharing has stopped, only that it was the necessary component of his earthly ministry, namely the route through the cross to accomplish his specific earthly work.

But that may be because I am an old codger stuck in his ways of understanding of the text.

At Wed Jun 27, 07:23:00 PM, Blogger Marvin Cotten said...

Exactly. One may perhaps INFER non-continuation from a past tense, but it does not actually IMPLY that the situation is no longer in force.

At Thu Jun 28, 04:39:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Exegete77 and Marvin, I think you need to understand a bit that in English (and other languages) different verbs work differently. In technical terms, they are different in their Aktionsart.

To see this, consider the verbs "be" and "become". "Be" is called a stative verb, because it describes a state, whereas "become" is not; it might be called "inceptive", i.e. denoting the beginning of a state. Because of this their simple past tenses have significantly different meanings. "Fred became married" would normally be understood as meaning that he still is married. But "Fred was married" would be understood as implying that he no longer is, because of death or divorce. Similarly "Jesus became a man" does not suggest that he is no longer one, but "Jesus was a man" suggests, without quite asserting, that now he is not.

Now the question arises of whether "share" and "partake" are stative, like "be", or not, like "become". I accept that this is not entirely clear. I would not like to pass judgement on "partake" because it is not a word in my active vocabulary. As for "share", it does have non-stative senses like "he shared his food with us", where there is no suggestion that he then took it back. Also in English these matters are closely affected by following prepositions. It seems to me that "share out" is generally not stative, but "share in" is.

Thus in a part sentence like "he too shared in their humanity" "share in" is stative, according to my own mother tongue speaker understanding of English. To make this sentence non-stative and inceptive, I would have to write something like "he too came to share in their humanity". But (T)NIV reads simply "he too shared in their humanity", and to me (and I recognise that other people's take on this might be different) this implies at least a suggestion, if not a definite statement, of the heretical teaching that this state of sharing is something in the past which has come to an end.


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