Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, July 11, 2016

Inerrancy? Jesus didn't say that.

Many people believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, written via divine inspiration so that every word is accurate and intended by God, except where copying errors have crept in. One wonders why a god who could dictate his words verbatim to his human scribes decided not to preserve those words, but that's a separate topic.

In this article I want to demonstrate very simply that the New Testament contains a conversation involving Jesus that Jesus almost certainly didn't have.

Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”
John 3:1-4 NET

If you read this carefully, you'll notice that Nicodemus's reply doesn't appear to make sense. Jesus didn't say anything about being born when a man is old. He also didn't say anything about being born a second time. So what is Nicodemus talking about?

If we read verse 3 again from the KJV it becomes much clearer:
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
John 3:3 KJV
Aha, so Nicodemus thought Jesus was saying he needed to be born again, hence his confused reply.

The confusion comes from the Greek word that has been translated "from above" in the NET and "again" in the KJV:
sn Or born again. The Greek word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) can mean both “again” and “from above,” giving rise to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding about a second physical birth (v. 4).
NET footnote 8 (next to John 3)

The longer NET footnote explains in more detail:
The word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.
NET footnote 8 (next to John 3)

But here's the problem. The word-play only works in Greek. Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek. Take a moment to think about that.

These cannot be the actual words of Jesus, and I'm not just referring to the translation. If Jesus did not use the Greek word, "anwqen", then there is no explanation for the way Nicodemus responded. As the NET footnote explains, the double-meaning does not translate into other languages (including Aramaic and Hebrew).

The simplest explanation is that the author put words in Jesus's mouth to make a theological point for his readers.