Christian Conflict Resolution

Like all people, Christians have conflict over ideas, practices, preferred traditions, and how the to spend money. Conflict is good. It helps solve problems. But we frequently handle this conflict in ways that contradict the purpose of the church and the content of the gospel message! When we value a minor thing as though it were a major thing, we let our emotional response guide us rather than truth, practicality, or ethics. And so below, I’ll explain what appears to me to be a New Testament guide to conflict resolution among Christians:

Christian Conflict Resolution

A Translation of Philippians 4:2-9:[1]

“I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.”

Below is an attempt to give a commentary on the passage above, followed by an argument for why I think it is meant to conflict resolution. But for those more interested in the practical take away, here it is. In list form, Paul’s recommendations for Christian conflict resolution:

  1. Call to mind your calling as Christians
    If you remember, in the midst of a conflict, who you are, who the other person is, and where you are, and why you’re together in the first place, then you’ll have a foundation for productive Christian conflict. To “have the same way of thinking” in the passage hearkens back to Philippians 2:5-11. It doesn’t mean “agree in all things.” It means remember to try to be like Jesus.
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always.
    Think of specific reasons to be joyful in connection with your faith. So think of Christ’s death for sins, your forgiveness, the greatness of God’s love, answered prayers, etc. 
  3. Behave reasonably (esp.) when you have an audience
    Paul recommends that when others are present, you put extra care into being moderate and reasonable. This makes sense, as acting vindictive or angry in public exacerbates things.
  4. Recognize the nearness of the Lord
    Just like realizing you have an audience might make you circumspect, remembering that the Lord is near ought to make you more so. 
  5. Do not fret about anything
    Allowing a thought to occupy your mind obsessively can blow it out of proportion. Instead of thinking constantly about how you’re not getting your way, Paul recommends the next step.
  6. Thankfully ask God to grant your requests
    Think of specific reasons to be thankful, and in that attitude of thanksgiving, ask God to give you what is best. God may grant your request. Also, you’re preparing yourself to seek the best thing, not merely what you want in the moment. And so Christian arguments should include time for prayer. 
  7. Think about what is good in the other.
    It’s harder to hate somebody and aim to thwart their desires without reason when you sit and consider what it best in them. For instance, you’ve probably had the experience where somebody tells you a true, positive fact when you’re mad or sad and you start to laugh. That’s a sign that you’re being persuaded into a positive frame of mind.
  8. Practice the Paul’s spiritual disciplines in accordance with Paul’s gospel.
    Finally, everybody involved should be practicing self-denial, prayer, fasting, etc. Every Christian ought to be aiming their life at Christ-likeness. And in this letter and spread throughout the New Testament are the practices in accord with that lifestyle.

A Christian Conflict Resolution Commentary

  1. I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.
    Paul reminds the women and the entire Philippian church that they are co-workers in the gospel. And the gospel comes with a calling to acquire the mind of Christ. And so if you remember that you’re on the same task force, it will be easier to get along. And in fact, if you remember that your partners in conflict have their names in the book of life, you’ll remember how much God loves them too!
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
    In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.
  3. Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
    The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.
  4. The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
    Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.
  5. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.
  6. Finally, brothers
    This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.

    1. whatever is honest
      Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”
    2. whatever is noble
      Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.
    3. whatever is just
      Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.
    4. whatever is pure
      The word pure carries the weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.
    5. whatever causes affection
      Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.
    6. whatever is commendable
      Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.
    7. if there is any virtue
      If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.
    8. and if there is anything praiseworthy
      Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private praise? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood, do they show kindness, do they share the gospel? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?
    9. take account of these things;
      Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).
  7. and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
    Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.
  8. and the God of peace will be with you.
    The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s peace will reside with the church. 

Appendix:

The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9

The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis (a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice).[2]

The passage seems more specific than that to me. Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.

It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:

  1. Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
  2. An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”

If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.

  1. It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
  2. It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not ideals to be contemplated.
  3. Paul’s says that following these instructions will result in peace.
  4. It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of individual Christians).

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[1] Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.

[2] There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.

 

Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]

Text

Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)

Translation

Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)

 

For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]

 

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 

Reflections

Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)

Ephesians 4:1-6

Text

Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς ἐγὼ ὁ δέσμιος ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως περιπατῆσαι τῆς κλήσεως ἧς ἐκλήθητε, μετὰ πάσης ταπεινοφροσύνης καὶ πραΰτητος, μετὰ μακροθυμίας, ἀνεχόμενοι ἀλλήλων ἐν ἀγάπῃ, σπουδάζοντες τηρεῖν τὴν ἑνότητα τοῦ πνεύματος ἐν τῷ συνδέσμῳ τῆς εἰρήνης· Ἓν σῶμα καὶ ἓν πνεῦμα, καθὼς καὶ ἐκλήθητε ἐν μιᾷ ἐλπίδι τῆς κλήσεως ὑμῶν· εἷς κύριος, μία πίστις, ἓν βάπτισμα, εἷς θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ πάντων, ὁ ἐπὶ πάντων καὶ διὰ πάντων καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν.
(Eph 4:1-6)

Translation

Therefore, I (the prisoner in the Lord) urge you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called; in all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, working hard to keep/obey the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all. Eph (4:1-6)

Interpretation

“calling” in Paul’s letters is a synecdoche for the personal event of hearing and believing the gospel message. It carries the same connotation as conversion does for us today. To walk worthy of the calling is to live in a way that reflects the dignity of the one who has called you. It is important to note that for Paul and Jesus in the gospels, the calling is to a particular form of community life. Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God.” Paul said “church.” The idea is still important. Our conversion is personal and individual. Yet, it is not alone because it is a whole person conversion, and our social self is part of who we are. To be called as a Christian is to be identified with God’s elect people. But this calling is more than individual or social. Paul does speak of the evangelist calling people in his letters and of the individual’s responsibility to respond to the gospel. But even more, for Paul, the gospel call is a call from Jesus himself. So to walk worthy of the calling is to live in a way that honors Jesus with respect to his office and character. He goes on by listing character traits as to how this may be done. 

unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” means divinely inspired unity which comes from the teachings related to the gospel. Paul tells them to be working hard to maintain this. There is a unity in the church which has its origin in God’s Spirit. But, this original unity must be maintained by God’s people in the sphere of “the bond of peace.” The bond of peace refers to the peace which Christ preached to those near and far. What Christ preached is the gospel (Ephesians 2:17). More evidence for this is that Paul uses this summary of the gospel story, “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all.”

Application

Christians must break certain habits. Habits of impatience, rudeness, and an inability to forgive all have to go. To do this, I think we must radically transform our approach to time, we spend to much time rushing that we’re short with God’s people. Instead, we need to slow down to learn to be patient with others. I also suspect that learning about our own sinfulness and not resenting it, but knowing it will help us to be compassionate and forbearing to others. 

Also, this passage tells us that Christians need to know the gospel well enough to have unity with other Christians based on our shared faith. To live worthy of the gospel, we must know it. Why? Because it’s principles are principles of peace. Once we know those principles, we must work hard to practice them so that we can have unity.

Finally, it is the calling of every Christian to put on these character traits. 

Recommended Reading:

Barth, Markus. Ephesians. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1984.

Hoehner, Harold W. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002.

Don’t resist by means of evil

Text

38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ °καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 * ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλʼ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα [σου], στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν,* ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 * καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν,* ὕπαγε μετʼ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός, καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς. [1]

Translation

38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I am telling you to not resist by means of evil, but whoever strikes you upon the right cheek, turn to him also the left; 40 and to whomever desires to sue you and to take your tunic, give to him him also the cloak. 41 And whoever obligates you to go a mile, go with him two. 42 To whomever asks of you, give, and to him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Reflections

  1. Eye for an eye was an Old Testament legal precedent applicable to situations in which an unborn baby or neighbor is injured by violence. The law was also a precedent for cases concerning false witnesses.
  2. Jesus does not seem to be claiming that courtroom judgments should be abrogated. He uses court circumstances and assumes their enduring relevance in two previous triads. Instead, he seems to be correcting the use of these passages as justifications for using evils suffered as justification for evils done.
  3. The way out of the cycle of returning evil for evil is illustrated in four ways, but I think it’s important not to limit the process to these specifics and indeed, Jesus himself does not treat these commands as absolute rules for all times but as wise ways to avoid resisting evil with evil. So turn the cheek, go the mile, give the garment, and so-on are illustrations.
  4. For instance, Jesus tells people, “No” when they ask him for a sign (Matthew 16). He also criticizes a man for striking him (John 18:23).
  5. So, if there are exceptions, it is perhaps best to think of this teaching as recommending that one do the shocking or disarming thing to create peace in the face of institutional oppression and personal honor challenges.
  6. Jerome Neyrey sees this particular passage as a way out of the tit for tat honor/shame game played in the ancient world. I think that is part of the idea, though probably not the whole idea as Jesus and the apostles in Acts participate in that game verbally.

References

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:38–42.

Let your yes be yes

Translation Matthew 5:33-37

33 Again, you heard that it was said to the ancients, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill your oaths to the Lord. 34 But, I am telling you not swear at all; neither by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth, because it is the footstool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king, 36 nor should you swear by your head, because you are unable to make one hair white or black. 37 Instead, let your word be “Yes, yes, no, no.” Indeed, more than this is from the evil one.[1]

Reflections:

  1. One of our main tendencies when seeing the words of Christ in places like this is to try to find ways out or exceptions to the rule.
  2. This instinct can be dangerous as it can be simply a way of getting out of what Jesus said.
  3. This instinct can be very wise because it is important to fully understand a command before obeying it or to understand an ideal prior to pursuing it. “Jump.” “How high, on what, when?”
  4. In this case, there are good reasons to ask, “Are there times Christians can take vows?” For instance, Paul takes a vow in Acts (it’s why he cuts his hair in Acts 18:18). The ancient Christians had baptismal/confirmation vows. Similarly, Jesus speaks highly of marriage and never proscribes it, but marriage is a covenant with vows/oaths.
  5. So, what vows is Jesus prohibiting? I think that Jesus is prohibiting vows which endear the speaker to the hearers as a sign of honor. “I swear by the temple that I’ll do thus and such…” Jesus is essentially telling his disciples that while the ancients rightly said, “don’t break oaths, I’m telling you just don’t take them. Instead let your word (yes/no) be enough because it’s based on goodness.”
  6. The reason I feel comfortable interpreting things that way is that I think that Glen Stassen’s triadic structure of the Sermon on the Mount makes the most sense. Each teaching is a three-part block with the emphasis on the third part which is a transforming initiative:
    1. Traditional piety
    2. Cycle of judgment
    3. Transforming initiative
  7. The instruction about the futility of oaths and the reasons for avoiding them is not the actual imperative in the passage, but rather a description of the way things are. The command is “let your word be yes and no.”
  8. The point here is very similar to the point made in chapter six. We’re supposed to do things because we see them as God’s will/the right thing to do, not as a way of advertising our piety to others. Our relationship with God is public insofar as it leads us to do good works. But it is to be hidden insofar as public displays of piety tend to be a part of the world of attention seeking rather than the world of virtue and interior transformation.
  9. So ultimately, the point is simple: let what you say reflect what you’re going to do and then do it or not. Don’t embellish what you say to gain religious honor (which is a silly kind of honor, anyhow).

References

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:33–37, “33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις,* ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ, μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως,* 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι ⸂μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν⸃.* 37 ⸀ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ⸂ναὶ ναί,⸃ οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.*”

Translation Tuesday LXX: Psalm 1

Text

1 Μακάριος ἀνήρ, ὃς οὐκ ἐπορεύθη ἐν βουλῇ ἀσεβῶν καὶ ἐν ὁδῷ ἁμαρτωλῶν οὐκ ἔστη καὶ ἐπὶ καθέδραν λοιμῶν οὐκ ἐκάθισεν, 2 ἀλλʼ ἢ ἐν τῷ νόμῳ κυρίου τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐν τῷ νόμῳ αὐτοῦ μελετήσει ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός. 3 καὶ ἔσται ὡς τὸ ξύλον τὸ πεφυτευμένον παρὰ τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὑδάτων, ὃ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ δώσει ἐν καιρῷ αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸ φύλλον αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἀπορρυήσεται, καὶ πάντα, ὅσα ἂν ποιῇ, κατευοδωθήσεται. 4 οὐχ οὕτως οἱ ἀσεβεῖς, οὐχ οὕτως, ἀλλʼ ἢ ὡς ὁ χνοῦς, ὃν ἐκριπτεῖ ὁ ἄνεμος ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς. 5 διὰ τοῦτο οὐκ ἀναστήσονται ἀσεβεῖς ἐν κρίσει οὐδὲ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἐν βουλῇ δικαίων, 6 ὅτι γινώσκει κύριος ὁδὸν δικαίων, καὶ ὁδὸς ἀσεβῶν ἀπολεῖται. [1]

Capture

Psalm 1 from Codex Sinaiticus 

Rough Translation

(1:1) How happy is the man who does not go in the counsel of the godless and who does not stand in the way of the sinful, and does not sit in the seat of pestilent persons, (1:2) but rather upon the law of the Lord is his desire, and upon his law he fixes his mind day and night. (1:3) And he will be as a tree which have been planted along the springs of water, which gives its fruit in its season and its leaf does not fall away, and everything whatsoever he may do, it is made to prosper. (1:4) No so for the godless, no so, but rather they are as the powder which the wind casts away from the face of the earth. (1:5) For this reason the godless will not rise up in the judgment nor sinners in the counsel of the righteous, (1:6) because the Lord knows the way of the righteous, and the way of the godless will be destroyed.

Reflections

I normally (normally, I haven’t done this in months!) include a polished translation, but I’m terrible at poetry, so there is no polish here.

A thing to remember when read translations like mine is that when I’m translating “κύριος” as “the Lord” despite its lack of an article it’s because I’m following English language conventions. The Greek word is used to translate the divine name. So it’s really a circumlocution for a personal reference to God. It might even be better to translated it into English as “YHWH.”

In (1:1) we see a reference to “pestilent persons.” In the Hebrew Old Testament the word is “scoffers,” a particularly vicious type of sinner. The translators picked nasty word to translate these types of people, but it works. “Pestilent persons…” people who spread their impiety like a disease. It’s frightening and elegant. Anyway, the Psalmist is warning us in a roundabout way (happy is the man who…) to avoid the fellowship of such people. There are obvious exceptions to rules like this. Jesus spent time with sinners, even such as wanted to kill him. But the idea is in terms of influence. The average person takes on the character of their closest pals (think Jimmy Olsen and Superman). If you sit in the seat of scoffers you’re either sitting in their homes or, worse, sitting in their position to do their scoffing. When I hear Christian academics making fun of their brothers and sisters for unenlightened views (there is, of course, a place for mockery in moral instruction), I cringe as this Psalm comes to mind.

In (1:2) we have the contrast that shows how the previous section is not a call to avoid sinful people all together, but to avoid letting them be the prime influence in your life if you wish to be happy. Instead, one should meditate on the law of the Lord. In the case of the Psalm this clearly refers to the first five books of the Old Testament. For Christians this meditation includes the Old Testament but extends to and shows a preference for Jesus, his way of life, and his teachings. Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 3:18-4:5 and Colossians 2:1-7 & 3:1-4, Peter talks about it in 1 Peter 2:21-25, and John says it in 1 John 2:6.

In (1:3-6) the Psalmist uses an arboreal analogy to make his point. The one who meditates on God’s law will be like a healthy tree, happy for two reasons. One because it is nourished and secure and two because it bears good fruit. Similarly, the righteous person has joy from knowing/delighting in God (1:2) and being known by God (1:6), but the righteous person has also learned the ways of success from the maker of nature and humanity and can therefore live with positive results in life.  That this is the opening Psalm is telling because the “two-ways” paradigm exists throughout Scripture. It goes back to Genesis and is expressed in Revelation. But there are exceptions. Many times the wicked prosper at the expense of the good and many times the good can be crushed between the gears of historical circumstance. The whole book of Psalms acknowledges these exceptions, but it starts with the general rule and encouragement to goodness: the truly good are the truly happy!

References

[1] Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Ps 1:1–6.

Image: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx?book=26#26-2-1-8

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:38-42

Writing about this passage is something I often do with great trepidation because it sounds like I’m deradicalizing it. But here I am, rock you like a hurricane, I guess.

Text
38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα, στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δόςκαὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.

Translation:
38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I am telling you, to not resist by means of evil. Instead: whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other, 40 and to any who desires to sue you to receive your shirt, release to him also your coat, 41 and whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 and give to him who asks of you and concerning him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Reflections:

  1. I’m very nearly a pacifist, in the sense that I am almost entirely convinced that violence does not solve problems, but I do not think that this passage teaches out and out pacifism. For instance, Jesus does not say to let violence happen to others on your watch or to take a pummeling when your children are in danger.
  2. The passage is not turning over the judicial principles of the Old Testament because those passages (eye for an eye) are about court room settings and only one place in the passage above is court mentioned. Jesus, instead, seems to be correcting the use of those passages to justify revenge or a refusal to go along with superiors (Roman soldier who could demand you carry his pack for a mile, an apparently superior man challenging you to an honor duel, or somebody rich suing you for something they don’t actually need). The final illustration is for the Christian who is in a superior position: show mercy.
  3. The passage is not a carte blanch check from outsiders to abuse Christians or for Christians to accept interference with their lives. Jesus himself refuses people who ask him for things several times in the gospels, he does not always go along with demands people make of him (although when he does, his death atones for the sins of humanity), and when verbal disputes happen sometimes Jesus hits back twice as hard. So Jesus is not saying that Christians are to never respond to criticism, insults, or outrageous requests. But he is apparently using the examples of generosity in the face of such actions to illustrate his point that he wants his followers not to seek revenge.
  4. One of my favorite interpreters, Jerome Neyrey overstates the case that in these verses Jesus is telling his disciples to stay entirely out of the honor-shame game (see Honor and Shame in Matthew’s Gospel). It seems more coherent to say that Jesus is prioritizing honor with God by means of generosity over honor with man, but he does not seem to be saying that honor with people is always bad. It just constitutes it’s own reward. Again, see Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus often wins with rhetoric rather than careful argument. This is presumably because he needs to maintain his status as a public teacher until the time of the crucifixion.

Conclusion

Overall, I find that the approaches to this passage often taken make the rest of Matthew’s gospel incoherent. Essentially it is either taken as a list of impossible commands to show how evil we all are and compel us to ask for forgiveness or it is taken as a highly unrealistic social program that Jesus himself only selectively follows. I think it is better to take it as a correction of a misunderstanding followed by illustrations of how to do it. This explains how there are exceptions in Jesus’ own behavior and teaching elsewhere in Matthew.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:33-37

Text
33
Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ, μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως, 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν. 37 ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.[1]

Translation
33
Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, “You [singular] will not break your oath, but you will fulfill your vows.” 34 But I am telling you all to not make oaths at all. Not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth, because it is his footstool, nor for the sake of Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king, 36 nor by your head shall you swear because you do not have power to make one hair white or black. 37 Instead, let your word be Yes or No. Anything more than this is from the evil one.

Reflection
Two of the most important ideas to keep in mind when reading the Sermon on the Mount are that:

  1. Matthew wrote it because he thought Jesus really wanted us to put it into practice.
  2. There are exceptions to many of the commands that are simply assumed without elaboration. So the point is probably not merely that all oaths are bad (Jesus answered under oath in court in Matthew 26:63). There is likely to be something else going on.

There is some evidence that ancient persons were not future oriented in the same way that modern Americans are (note how often Paul cancelled his travel plans in his letters). In this way, it is possible that people would make lofty oaths to gain honor and trust in the present even though they had no intention to keeping their vows in the future. In fact, in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that he wasn’t a man who broke oaths, but that his vacillation between visiting or not was not dishonesty but legitimate frustration with the Corinthians that kept him from visiting (2 Cor 1:16-24).
What Jesus seems to be saying is that grand gestures of fealty and integrity are unnecessary for God’s people. We simply need to say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Oaths taken for honor’s sake in the Old Testament never turned out well. Jesus even tells people to consider whether they will follow him and to weigh the options carefully (Luke 14:26-35). This is a message that is greatly needed in our present culture because lofty promises are made by politicians and millennial types often never show up to things they claimed they would intend. In a real way, Jesus’ teaching here appears to be moving integrity to the locus of personal consistency rather than the external locus of group rapport.

Translation Reflections
There is no reason for the phrase, “μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα” to be translated “nor by Jerusalem.” It carries the force, “nor for the sake of Jerusalem.” In other words, don’t even take oaths for the city.  I’ll have to look more deeply into this expression, but my instinct is that it is related to political zealotry, perhaps oaths to attack Rome when the moment is right. But the point is not the oaths, (which are prohibited with the infinitive, not the imperative), but the point is that that Jesus commands us to simply say yes or no and to do what we say we’ll do.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:33–37.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:27-30

27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. 28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. 30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.[1]

Translation
27
You heard that it was said, “You will not commit adultery.” 28 But I am telling you that everyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 Now, if your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and toss it from you; for it is better for you that one body part of yours be destroyed and not to have your whole body tossed into the Valley of Hinnom. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and toss it from you; for it is better for you that one body part of yours be destroyed and not to have your whole body go away into the Valley of Hinnom.

Reflection
Most interpret this passage to be Jesus’ using hyperbole to say, “Do whatever it takes not to sin.” I think it’s more of a metaphor. The eye and the hand are representative of favorite bodily actions or mental dispositions of thought/emotion. The reason this seems less clear to us is probably because we don’t read the Old Testament enough. The right hand/arm of a person is commonly representative of their strength/capabilities/accomplishments. Similarly, the eye is related to somebody’s intentions, internal disposition, and so-on. So, Jesus’ point here is not merely to use hyperbole to help us see how bad sin is, it is to use metaphor to show how much better it is to do without sin than to keep it.

In this case, the sins are dispositional sins regarding sexuality. The wrong way to take this is to think that, “I’ve already lusted, so I might as well have sex with a stranger.” The right way to think of it is, “I don’t get brownie points with God for being lascivious in my thoughts just because I’m too shy or scared to be evil in my actions.” Jesus’ rhetorical goal appears to be rooting out a warped view of other human beings that lurks behind the apparently chaste glances of the people who want to be a part of God’s kingdom.

Another important approach to this passage is that Jesus says that men (and indirectly, women) are responsible for their own lust. In the ancient world, it seems, women were commonly treated as blameworthy for men’s dispositions toward them. Jesus says that in God’s kingdom this is not how it should go. I would add that everybody, to some degree, knows that their actions will elicit certain behaviors from others but when somebody lusts after another, Jesus says that ultimately the luster is culpable, not the lustee. This is important for today because when Christians teach about modesty, I often hear them teach it from the perspective of “people might lust” rather than from the perspective of Scripture itself. For instance, Paul taught that modesty is connected with self-control, frugality, and good works (1 Timothy 2:8-10). Now, just because Jesus, in Matthew 5, primarily addresses men, does not mean that the teaching cannot likewise be applied to women.

Finally, this passage is intentionally limited to a particular aspect of human sexuality that the Bible deals with elsewhere. There is “looking in order to lust,” probably at somebody who is unavailable for marriage to you since the word adultery is used. But then there is looking with desire (same Greek word) because you’re single and they are too. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 7, it’s also all over Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. There is a fine line here, but somebody who is sexually attractive to you could easily become your spouse. It’s not wrong to think, “I must have the attention of this person.” Jesus isn’t talking about that here. He’s talking about something that is a corollary to adultery: looking at a woman solely in order to fantasize about her (or a man). It’s clearly not about the motivation to get married because the whole unit of teaching is connected to a command against ruining marriages. In other words, single folks should not feel evil for thinking that somebody looks good. They also should either ask them out on a date or move on in order to avoid going into full blown pedestal/fantasy/lust mode over them.

Translation Comments:
A great many translations translate, “πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν” as “look with lust.” Προς or εις plus the articular infinitive take the meaning of “in order to” or “with the result that” so often, that translating it as “with” just blows my mind. I’ve never found that translation defended, I’ve only ever found it used. I think that the NIV translation of this passage (from conversations since my teenage years with Christians who read the NIV) makes a lot of people think that normal sexual desire is repudiated by Jesus. This simply is not so. Jesus commends married people and is clear that only some citizens of the kingdom of God will find it advantageous not to be married.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:27–30.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:21-26

NA 28
21
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐ φονεύσεις· ὃς δʼ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. 22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δʼ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δʼ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. 23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, 24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. 25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχύ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετʼ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ· 26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν, ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.[1]

Rough Translation
21
You heard that it was said to the ancients, “You will not murder. Indeed, if anybody should murder, the same will be liable to judgement.” 22 But I am telling you that everybody who is raging against his brother will be liable to judgement. Indeed, if any should say to his brother, ‘You doofus!’ the same will be liable to the council. If any should say, “You idiot!” the same will be liable to the fiery valley of Hinnom. 23 Therefore, if you offer your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has anything against you, 24 leave your gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother, and then go offer your gift. 25 Become friendly with your accuser quickly, while you are yet on the way with him to court, lest the accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the guard, and the guard throw you into prison. 26 Amen, I am telling you that you cannot come out, until you repay the last cent.

Reflection:
Glen Stassen argues persuasively that the best way to see the units in the Sermon on the Mount is by triad.[2] Here is how his outline would apply in Matthew 5:21-26[3]:

  1. Traditional Righteousness: Do not murder.
  2. Cycle of judgment: If you hold grudges against or insult your brother you’re still liable.
  3. Transforming Initiative: Be reconciled to your brother and be friendly with those who would take you to court.

The normal interpretation of this segment of teaching sounds like this, “You think murder is bad, you ought to meet my friend Jesus, He thinks even feeling angry will send you to hell.” But if we break things up into three parts, we see that the emphasis is on the way out of the cycle of judgment. Jesus doesn’t just say, “It’s really bad to insult and feel angry, folks.” He says, “Anger and insult will lead to judgment, therefore reconcile with your brother even before you worship and make friends with people who try to shame you in the courts.” His teaching here is, on this reading, not a guilt trip but a way out of anger and insult for the family of God.

It is also worth noting that there is some dispute about whether or not verses 25 and 26 are literal (Jesus giving advice about lawsuits) or figurative (Jesus talking about purgatory or hell). In light of the cycle of judgment, it makes sense to see the advice as neither. It is, rather, exemplary advice. There are not only two ways out of anger (reconciling before church and becoming friendly during lawsuits). Those are examples. So while the examples are literal, they are not literally the only option. Instead, their rhetorical purpose appears to be similar to somebody giving priorities by means of illustration. The priority is: be first to reconcile when you commit an offense.

Another, lesser explored, angle here is that Jesus seems to be giving advice that would improve the quality of life of those who put it into practice. When somebody wants to take you to court befriend them and offer to make amends before it goes that far. It may not work, but on lesser offenses it may. The thought behind it is, “pay for any damages you cause willingly, don’t let it even go to court.”

So, what can you do when you find that your actions lead to anger amongst others? While there are limits to how far this goes (Jesus didn’t care when the right thing upset the right people), most of us can think of the sorts of things meant here. Think of the remarks made out of anger or with the intention to cause harm rather than building up. Or, think about making somebody want to sue you. So I ask again: What can you do when you find that your actions lead to anger and offense amongst others?

Comments:
I translated τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός as “the fiery valley of Hinnom” because in my mind that’s the immediate referent. If you want background on that, read Jeremiah and think of Jesus’ hearers as people awaiting God’s rescue from national exile. Jesus says that little things like not being kind to one another can instead lead to the results and judgments of Jeremiah’s preaching.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:21–26.

[2] Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12),” ed. Gail R. O’Day, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 268.

[3] Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12),” ed. Gail R. O’Day, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 270.