The Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation

The Gospel of John opens with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).[1] Incomprehensible! Often at Christmas time, we are lost in the imagery of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. One may picture angels overhead with Mary and Joseph seated near the Child, surrounding by shepherds, wisemen,[2] and onlooking animals. But does one contemplate the great complexity of it all? John notes that the eternal Word, the Logos,[3] came to earth and became a human being. God became one of us. How does one understand this complex doctrine? Early in Christian history, two schools sought to develop and understanding on how it was that God came to earth. One developed in Alexandria, Egypt, a center of high intellectualism and which housed one of the largest libraries in human history—known as the Alexandrian school. Another developed in Antioch located in Asia Minor (around modern Turkey)—known as the Antiochene school.

The Alexandrian School of Understanding

The Alexandrian school was home to some powerful Christian thinkers including the great apologist Justin Martyr. Athanasius, the man who defeated the ancient Arian heresy,[4] came from this school of thought as well as Cyril of Alexandria and others. The Alexandrian school “focused sharply on the significance of Christ as savior.”[5] As such, the Alexandrian school focused on the divine nature of Christ and emphasized the divine Logos as He assumed a human nature. Cyril of Alexandria notes,

 “In declaring that the Word was made to ‘be incarnate’ and ‘made human,’ we do not assert that there was any change in the nature of the Word when it became flesh, or that it was transformed into an entire human being, consisting of soul and body; but we say that the Word, in an indescribable and inconceivable manner, united personally to himself flesh endowed with a rational soul, and thus became a human being and was called the Son of man. And this was not by a mere act of the will or favor, nor simply adopting a role or taking to himself a person.”[6]

Apollinarius of Laodicea (c. 310-390) took the Alexandrian understanding of the Logos assuming flesh to the point where he claimed that a human mind and soul were replaced with a divine mind and soul. The Apollinarian school thus devalued the human aspect of Christ, a concept that would be challenged by many Alexandrians and especially the Antiochenes.

The Antiochene School of Understanding

Whereas the Alexandrians focused on the salvific aspect of Christ, the Antiochene school focused on the moral aspects of Christ.[7] The Antiochene school focused on the wholeness of Christ being both divine and human. Unfortunately, like Apollinarius would for the Alexandrian school, a man name Nestorius (c. 386-451) would stretch the Antiochene understanding to the limits of heresy. Nestorius would argue that Christ held two natures: one human and one divine. Yet, Nestorius’ view led to the belief that Christ has two parts to Himself. However, a solution to this enigma would come from the Antiochene school.

The Hypostatic Union

The Antiochene school found a solution to the two natures of Christ in the term “hypostatic union.” That is, the union of the “divine and human natures in Christ—rests in the will of God.”[8] As Theodore of Mopsuestia would denote,

“The distinction between the natures does not annul the exact conjunction, nor does the exact conjunction destroy the distinction between the natures, but the natures remain in their respective existence while separated, and the conjunction remains intact because the one who was assumed is united in honor and glory with the one who assumed, according to the will of the one who assumed him…In this same way here [i.e., in the incarnation] they are two by nature and one by conjunction because the adoration offered to the one who has been assumed is not divided from that offered to the one who assumed him.”[9]

Thus, the solution is found by acknowledging that Christ was both divine and human, compiled into one person—Jesus of Nazareth. The Word became flesh. Therefore, one finds both the divine Word and a human persona in one being.

Conclusion

What mystery! What wonder! The babe lying in a manger was none other than God Himself! God joined the human drama. He became one of us so that He could point us back to Him. I read a story of a farmer who returned from his children’s Christmas program. He could not understand why God came to earth, or even why He would desire to do so. After he tucked his kids in bed, he checked on his animals in the barn on this cold, snowy night. Clomping through the snow and opening the doors to the barn, he heard faint chirping. He looked to find four little birds flopping in the snow. They could not yet fly and the cold snow was freezing them.

The farmer grabbed a broom, sweeping them towards the barn. The more he swept, the more frightened the little birds became. He tried to coax them inside with his voice, yet they could not comprehend his wisdom. He attempted to scoop them in his hands, only to find that the birds would flop back out. The birds were inches away from safety. The barn’s warmth would provide them shelter and warmth for the winter. Then the thought penetrated his mind, leaving him breathless with the insight of the incarnation for which he had long been longing: if he could become one of the birds, he could fix the broken relationship the birds had with the farmer. He could tell them that the farmer meant them no harm. He could lead the birds to safety, saving their lives—if only he could become a bird.

God did just that for all humanity. He lived among us, so that we could live with Him. He would eventually suffer for us, so that we could rejoice. He would die, so that we could live. What mystery! What amazing mystery! And what amazing love!

© December 12, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes:

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

[2] This is an erroneous depiction as the wise men did not appear at the time of Christ’s birth, but rather appeared a few months to a couple of years after the birth of Christ.

[3] The Greek term translated “Word.” The Logos is a complex concept as it depicts the personification of divine wisdom. It was understood as the aspect of God that developed the universe.

[4] Arianism is comparable to the modern Jehovah Witness movement as it denied the divine nature of Christ.

[5] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 277.

[6] Cyril of Alexandria, Second Letter to Nestorious IV, 3-5.

[7] See McGrath, 278.

[8] McGrath, 279.

[9] Theodore of Mopsuestia, “Catechetical Homily,” 8.13-14, Woodbrooke Studies: Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshuni, Alphose Mingana, trans (Cambridge, UK: Heffer, 1933), 89-90.

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That’s Not In My Bible: The Differences Between Translations

Codex Sinaiticus

“That’s not in my Bible” is a classic statement given by those who become entrenched in the debate on translations.   Due to the nature of tradition, many will elevate a particular translation to the point of being the only true Bible.  Those in universities and seminaries know of the difficulties in the translation process, but many ordinary Christians do not.  In this article, some classic issues on Bible translations will be examined.  Hopefully, you will become more knowledgeable about Bible translations after having read this article.

Scribe Jean Mielot

The Translation Process

Translating a text from one language to another is a difficult process.  One of the core difficulties in the translation process is that some words do not have an exact equivalent.  For instance, Greek is an inflected language which places more emphasis on moods than does a language like, say, English.  This does not mean that a good translation cannot be made.  It just means that the translation process is not as much of an “open and shut” case as one might think.  Some have said, “I want the translation to read exactly like the originals.”  That may not always be possible.  In English, there is a sentence structure that follows as subject, verb, direct object.  In Greek, the verb could come first or the direct object could come first depending on what has more emphasis.  For instance, take the following text: “Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον” (John 3:16, The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition).  If the text was translated verbatim, it would read, “In this way for loved the God the world so that the Son the one and only gave, so that everyone the believed in Him not perished but have life eternal.”  In order to make the text understandable, the words must be changed.  If one does so, then the text can be understood to say, “For God loved the world so much that He sent His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”  Every translation must take this license, even the King James Version.  Some will ask, “Why are there differences in the King James Version and modern translations?”

codexvaticanus

Text-Types–Their Differences and Which is Most Reliable

Each translation uses a text-type to translate from.  A text-type is a group of early New Testament documents that are used to translate the New Testament into modern languages.  Due to the persecution of the church, the autographs (original writings) are lost to us.  Although we do not possess the original documents of the Bible, we do possess early manuscripts that allow translators to know, with great precision, what was in the original documents.  This can be known by these text-types, early quotations from the early church fathers, and early fragments and documents (some of which date less than 50 years from the originals).

Blomberg explains that three text-types exist.  “When it comes to reliability and closest approximation to the original text, not all text types are created equal.  Three major text types emerged in the early centuries of the church: (1) the Western, (2) the Alexandrian, and (3) the Byzantine” (Blomberg, 10).  Blomberg also offers the following chart:

Text Type

Alexandrian

Characteristic Features

-Copied with meticulous care and accuracy

-Earliest exemplars are dated to 2nd century

-Generally preferred over Western and Byzantine due to characteristic accuracy

Examples

Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Coptic translations

Text Type

Western

Characteristic Features

-Early dating (some as early as 2nd century)

-Use of loose paraphrase, harmonization with NT texts

-Enrichment of narrative through inclusion of extra/ explanatory material

Examples

Codex Bezae, Old Latin or italic manuscripts

Text Type

Byzantine

Characteristic Features

-Continual development from 3rd century through early Middle Ages

-Clarity and completeness

-Conflated preexistent divergent readings by expanding the text and smoothing out word difficulties

-Became the dominant Greek text type from the 7th century onward

-Represents 80% of existing manuscripts today

Examples

Textus Receptus, Majority Text

(“Table 1.1 Major Text Types, Characteristic Features, and Examples” from Craig Blomberg, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis, pg. 10, adapted to fit blog)

As one could probably tell, the Alexandrian is more accurate than the Western text type and far earlier than the Byzantine text-type.  Therefore, modern translators prefer the Alexandrian text-type to the Western and Byzantine text-types.  The King James and New King James Versions are translations from the Byzantine text-type whereas modern translations (New American Standard, New International Version, New Living Translation, Holman Christian Standard Bible, and etc.) use the Alexandrian text-type.  So, which comes from the inspired Bible?

The-Holy-Bible

What is the Inspired Bible?

Some proclaim a certain translation as the inspired Bible.  However, can this be true?  The inspired Scripture is nothing less than the autographs themselves.  Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:15, NLT).  If it is held that the writers of the Bible were inspired, then it must be accepted that the final compositions of their texts were inspired.  Even if the Gospel of John is a compilation of John’s writings, then the gospel can still be seen as having been written by John and inspired by God.  Some claim that Paul was referring only to the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible).  This is unfair as most of the New Testament writings would have been written by the time Paul wrote the late letter.  Therefore, if the inspired text of the Bible is the autographs (the finalized original writings of the Old and New Testaments), then it is vital that translators have a text that is closest to the originals.

Due to the fact that differences exist between the Alexandrian and Byzantine text-types and due to the fact that the Alexandrian is more accurate, any additions added by copyists should be marked, if not deleted.  Some claim, “What about the text in Revelation that speaks to taking away portions from the Word of God?”  The text reads, “And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book.  And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19, NLT).  One, John is speaking about the book of Revelation, although it could be assumed that the same promise would hold true of the entire Scripture.  Second, the warning includes adding to the words of Scripture as much as deleting them.  If words have been added to the Scripture, the Christian should desire to have them deleted in order to possess an accurate translation and one that aligns with the original text.  Although there are a few words that have been added here and there to the Byzantine text.  99% of the New Testament is without any issue.  None of the differences affect any theological issues and no major historical event.

Are There any Main Passages That Are Significantly Different?

In all the differences, only two significant portions of the New Testament are affected by these text-type differences.

Mark 16:9ff  The first section affected is the ending of Mark 16.  Most ancient documents have the text ending at verse 8.  What happened to the ending is a great mystery.  Verse 8 leaves the text with the angels’ announcement to the women and the promise that Jesus would meet them, but does not record the actual appearances of Jesus to the disciples.  Did Mark die before adding the appearances?  Was he persecuted where he could not finish the text?  Who added the text?  I have a theory that Luke may have finished the text because it appears that the flow of appearances follows the appearances found in Luke’s gospel.  There is no hardcore evidence for this other than the parallels between the ending of Mark and Luke, but it is a possibility.  Some scholars feel that Mark may have ended the gospel abruptly for a reason.  Perhaps, Mark left the appearances a mystery.  There was the promise that Jesus had risen and would appear to them.  This is a possibility, but only God knows for sure.

John 7:53-8:11  This is perhaps the saddest problem of the two.  This text covers the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery who is redeemed when Jesus said, “Those of you without sin, cast the first stone.”  The problem is that the story does not appear in the earliest texts of the Gospel of John.  However, because there is a difference does not mean that the text is not original.  There is something bizarre with this text.  The story is not found in the earliest documents of the Gospel of John, but it is found in the early documents of the Gospel of Luke.  As a matter of fact, the story fits better in Luke 21.  The terminology even fits Luke’s gospel better than John’s.  Borchert writes, “The context would assume that Jesus had been teaching in the temple on several occasions and at daybreak (orthos, 8:2; the word is used elsewhere in the NT only in Luke 24;1; Acts 5:21) he began to do so again” (Borchert, 371).  So the text seems to be genuine, but misplaced.

Other than these two text-type differences, most other differences only affect a few words here and there.

Conclusion

Perfect translations do not exist.  However, translations are more accurate than ever due to archaeological findings of ancient New Testament texts.  We possess a very accurate Bible.  The reader can take comfort in knowing that the Old Testament matches the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Old Testament texts to a degree of over 95%.  The New Testament matches the earliest texts to a percentage of 99%.  That is an overall average of 97% accuracy…and that is a conservative estimate!  The Christian can be comforted in the fact that the Bible they possess is a very accurate Bible.

There are a variety of translations on the market today.  Formal equivalent translations are word-for-word translations.  The trouble is that these translations are more dry than others (meaning that these translations are more difficult to read).  They generally hold a higher reading level than functionally equivalent translations.  Formal equivalent translations include: the New American Standard, the Amplified Bible, and the New King James Version.  Functionally equivalent translations are dynamic in the sense that they offer a thought-for-thought translation.  These translations offer a sentence-by-sentence translation.  These translations are more readable, but take a greater license in the translation process.  Functionally equivalent translations include: the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible.  Paraphrases are generally offered by one individual.  They offer one person’s take on a scripture.  Paraphrases include: the Message, the Living Bible, and etc.  This author generally advises individuals to read paraphrases with caution.  Formal equivalent and functionally equivalent translations use teams of scholars and are preferred over paraphrases.

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.

Borchert, Gerald L. The New American Commentary: John 1-11. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.

Holmes, Michael W. The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition. Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007.