From John Ray's shorter notes

April 26, 2011

Some more exegesis

Exegesis is the detailed examination of a text in its context -- usually a scriptural text. I became an exegete of a sort when I was about 13. It was then that I first read the Sermon on the Mount. I was thunderstruck to find that what Jesus taught was nothing like what Christians actually do. Where is the ambiguity in:
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."

Can you get plainer than that? I can't imagine it. And I am still nearly as thunderstruck to this day about the gap between what the Bible says on the one hand and what Christians and Jews do, say and believe on the other hand. One would think that they would long ago have found a book that suited them better.

I still like Christianity as we have it today, however. I attended the Good Friday service at my old Presbyeterian church, for instance. See here. But it is a very poor reflection of the original faith.

I have continued to find exegesis fascinating, however, so I long ago started looking closely at what the rest of the scriptures actually say -- even delving into the original languages in which they were written where that seemed crucial. And over the years I have put up on this blog and on my scripture blog my findings about key doctrines -- including hellfire.

Rather to my amusement, however, I see that the NYT has just weighed in on hellfire. When the NYT is preaching the reality of hell, I feel that I should say a little more about some of the key scriptural texts involved.

Quick background: The word translated as "hell" in many Bibles is in the original Greek "hades", which simply means death or the grave. Translating it as "hell" is a theological statement, not a linguistic one. And knowing that wipes out most of the texts that are usually cited in support of the hellfire doctrine.

A couple of interesting texts remain, however, and today I thought I should look at one of Jesus's prophetic utterances in Matthew 25. An excerpt:
"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world ...

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal"

The "everlasting fire" into which the "goats" are cast certainly does sound like a clear formulation of a hellfire doctrine but that impression is partly an effect of a poor translation. The word translated as "punishment" is in Greek "kolasin" and it simply means "cutting off". It is the word a Greek gardener might use to describe the pruning of a tree. So it would be a defensible translation to say that the goats would be cut off and thrown away like the unwanted branch of a tree

So, when properly translated, we see that Christ was, as usual, offering the alternatives of life and death, not heaven and hell -- exactly as he does in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. The sheep get eternal life and the goats get eternal death. I guess I am a goat!

But where does the "everlasting fire" come in? To see that we have to note that Jesus was speaking figuratively for most of the passage, as he often did. His parables are famous. So is he really going to sit on a throne and muster billions of people on either side of him? If so, he would need to locate himself somewhere around Iran and even then the billions of goats would be crowded for room and many could well fall into the Mediterranean (presuming the throne was facing North).

And Jesus in fact makes it clear that he is aiming at vividness rather than precision when he notes: "as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats".

So we have to decipher what is behind the figurative language. We get a clue when we note another passage where he used the same expression. Matthew 18:
"Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire."

Again, however, we risk being misled by a quite mendacious translation. This is one occasion when the original Greek underlying the translation "hell" is NOT "hades". It is "Gehenna". And Gehenna was simply the municipal incinerator outside Jerusalem where the bodies of criminals were thrown.

So: Bingo! We now have it. We know what image of everlasting fire Jesus had in mind. He had in mind the continuously burning fire of Jerusalem's garbage incinerator. And, needless to say, the bodies thrown into Gehenna don't feel anything. They have simply died and been disposed of in an ignominious way. So both goats and the Devil are simply going to die -- but die in disgrace.

Jesus is however a careful teacher so makes sure we don't get him wrong by adding a plain language summary at the end of the Matthew 25 passage:
"And these shall go away into everlasting cutting off: but the righteous into everlasting life"

So the hellfire doctrine is another pagan borrowing. It is not Biblical.

A couple more points: Note that in the Matthew 25 passage Jesus speaks only of judging the "nations". There is no mention of the dead. So what about the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of them? Resurrection is the hope of an afterlife that is held out in both the Old and New Testaments but it is not mentioned there at all. That again tells us that Jesus was concerned to paint a vivid mental picture rather than make a precise doctrinal statement.

So, although the Bible is in general a very plainspoken book, we have to make sure that the translation is right and be careful not to take the figurative literally. And reading the whole passage is the usual key to that

Finally, the goats are on the LEFT! Did Jesus foresee the world today? (Just joking).

There is an interesting article here which describes some of the divisions in contemporary Christian thought about the nature of heaven and hell.

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