Well...It ain't gonna sell!
Let me give you a case in point that I recently tripped over. It was one of those, "I hate it when it's obvious" events. But, in any case, you're not going to like it.
Here is a very familiar passage to anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in the Greek. It's fairly simple Greek (which is not meant to demean anyone). But, there's something here that will surprise even most experts--few see it. I was surprised by it.
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων: καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν. (John 1:1-5).John is the master of ambiguity. He uses it to fascinate, entertain, and snag his reader. He does so here. But...well...you're not going to like it.
In fact, 'it' is the whole problem.
You see, the word λόγος (LOGOS) is the subject of the first clause. In fact, literally rendering the text, we would have: "In the beginning the word was." (EIMI generally places the subject after the verb; even more so when it's articular. Also, I prefer 'message', thinking it is more accurate; and I will be using it for the rest of this posting.) So, John, in this gospel, immediately introduces the concept of 'message'. He then refers back to λόγος, quite a number of times, using a specific word, namely, αὐτός (AUTOS). OK, fine, so what's the big deal about that?
Well, αὐτός can be translated as 'he', 'she', or 'it', depending on whether its referent is masculine, feminine or neuter. Well, here it refers back to λόγος and λόγος is masculine. However, that's Greek. In English λόγος is translated as 'message' (or word), and 'message' is an 'it'; it's not a 'he'. In other words, to be accurate, the translator should translate all these αὐτός words as 'it'. You see, 'it' is the whole problem (pun intended). I told you you weren't going to like it (no pun intended). In fact, you've probably dismissed me at this point for promoting heresy.
Please give me a few more minutes of your time to rescue myself from the pit. Or, more correctly, I think, to let the message of God rescue me (as he has so many times before).
John, as I said, is a master of ambiguity. And these 5 verses must be read within their unit of interpretation since it is within the whole text that the ambiguity is resolved. However, we should not read the end back into the beginning while we are reading the beginning. To be accurate, we should let the text say what the text is saying. If John is going to fascinate, entertain, and snag, then we should let him.
This unit of interpretation continues through verse 18. And, even more importantly, these 18 verses form a chiasm. What that means, among much more I'm not going to develop, is that verse 18 completely disambiguates what the 'message' really is. John wants to make absolutely sure that no one walks away from this unit of interpretation with the wrong interpretation -- that somehow, the message is an 'it'. So, let me state it clearly: this 'message' is the very Son of God; and, in fact, it is God himself. (All discussions holed up in John 1:1 must battle the fact of John 1:18; since the one kisses the other like two halves of a folded hinge. That's how a chiasm works. And a whole other translation issue.)
Furthermore, verse 14 states quite clearly that this message became flesh: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν. That is, "The message became flesh and entered a Temple-residence among us." (See the recent discussion regarding σκηνόω. My view is that here John is again purposely using double meaning to make a point. σκηνόω is an unusual word to be used here. Therefore it ends up referring to the Temple as well as referring to what one does when one resides somewhere. 'Temple-residence' is also an unusual word, so I've chosen it. In any case, only God could reside in the Temple.)
So, the ambiguity is completely resolved within the interpretive unit. To push this just one more time: John the Baptist also says so. I'll not develop that. It's there in the text.
Why then does John start off with this ambiguity?
He wants to emphasize what his gospel is about. It's a message about the Message. He is setting the stage for his whole gospel. The ambiguity raises the interest. The gentle movement from 'message' to 'person' pulls the reader into the text: it entertains, it fascinates, it snags.
The whole point of John's gospel is this message; but, it's a personified message; a God-human message. It's a message from God, about God, who, in fact, is God. But, the only way for God to communicate that message to human beings is to personify--that is, to enflesh--that very message. That is, God had to become a human being and thereby express in perfect accuracy who he is.
John is saying, "Let me introduce you to the message of God. He's living. He's breathing. And he walked among us. I'll provide you with signs as evidence to prove it."
Well, OK, I lied. Maybe, you do like it.
But, I bet many of you don't like how I got here. But, it seems to me, that is how John gets us here. He starts with some ambiguity. And then, through a masterful construction, resolves it. That focuses the attention on the resolution and yet, the reader wants to know more about this message. To me: That's brilliant!
You see what I mean.
One of the great difficulties Bible translators have is marketing their translations. People are picky. People measure accuracy in terms of words, or, possibly, at best, verses. And if the translation says something different than they're use to, out comes the interlinear, and the great "Aha!!" is heard throughout the land.
Who would accept:
"In the beginning was the message; the message was with God; the message was purely divine. It was in the beginning with God. It created everything, and apart from it not one thing came into being. In it there exists life and this life has continued to provide light to human beings. And the light lit up the darkness and the darkness did not withstand it."Maybe we should stop picking disagreements over words (or even the case endings) and start dancing with whole interpretive units. Maybe more and Better Bibles would be bought with the very living lives of people.
I'd like that. Even if some of what I said here is totally ridiculous, I think many of you would like that result, too.