Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Precious Writings

24-25 April - London
My first week of study leave has begun exploring the role of the Bible in helping us grow spiritually.  Part of that is understanding what the Bible is like.  On Monday Sue and I were in London for a missional conversation hosted by Martin Robinson of formission. (As I recall, Seb back at East Taieri is reading Martin's book Planting Mission-Shaped Churches Today as part of his work on a new fresh expression of church.)  This was a fruitful conversation, which I will blog about another time, but while we were in London, we visited the British Museum and the British Library.  Among many things we saw were ancient writings that reminded us how precious the Bible is, and inspired us to read and discover what God is saying to us.  (see also the link to the interview with Bono and Eugene Peterson at the end of this post).
Rosetta Stone

First, in the British Museum, we saw the Rosetta Stone, which dates from the 2nd Century BC.  It has the same decree in three scripts Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic and Ancient Greek.  This was the key to understanding how to read Egyptian hieroglyphic.

We also saw a range of clay tablets that were over 2,500 years old and gave amazing verification of people and events recorded in the Bible. The Cyrus cylinder dates from around 550BC and is King Cyrus' record of how he captured Babylon, and his policy of returning deported people (like the Israelite exiles) and rebuilding of temples.  Cyrus is mentioned several times in Isaiah.
The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal is mentioned in Ezra 4:10.  His clay tablet records the Assyrian version of the flood narrative.
Other tablets from the time of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar's reign confirm details from the Bible such as the conquest of Jerusalem and Judah and the exile of the Jewish people, including details such as the name of Nebuchadnezzar's right hand man Nebo-Sarsekim who is mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3.

Cyrus Cylinder

Ashurbanipal's Flood Tablet
Babylonian Cuneiform tablets about Nebuchadnezzar, etc.
Perhaps most moving of all for me was the opportunity to see early papyrus fragments of John's gospel and very early copies of the Bible in the British Library.  The Library describes Codex Sinaiticus as a treasure beyond price.  It is the earliest copy we have of the whole New Testament and much of the Old Testament.  These days you can visit the British Library website and turn the pages of Codex Sinaiticus online.
Codex Sinaiticus - From the British Library website (you aren't allowed to take photographs in the exhibition)
My New Testament Greek struggled to read this text as it is all in capital letters and there are no gaps between words or punctuation.

Nearby we saw William Tyndale's Bible and early English translation which Tyndale completed in the days when religious leaders believed the Bible should only be available in Latin.  Most ordinary people didn't speak or read Latin, so that made the Bible inaccessible for them.  Tyndale and others achievement was to ensure ordinary people could read the Bible in their native English.  Unfortunately Tyndale paid for this with his life, being executed and his body burned at the stake as a heretic.

This spoke to me of two important and precious things.  First, we do have the Bible available to us.  We can read God's word in a language we understand.  We don't have to rely on the experts or biblical scholars.  Second, we are grateful for the experts and biblical scholars who have made the translations for us and helped us move from ancient manuscripts to words we can read.  This also reminded me about the importance of careful exegesis (study and interpretation of the text).  Thanks to the work scholars have done, this study and interpretation can be done by anyone

As part of my study this week I read what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) wrote in “Eat this Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading”: “our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyper-spiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of local history and peasant dialect expunged.  There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be comprehended.” 

The texts are centuries (and millennia) removed from us, in ancient languages, from cultures strange to us.  So we approach our Bible reading with confidence (we can read and understand), but also with humility (recognizing and appreciating the hard work that has gone in to make these precious ancient writings accessible for us).

Papyrus 782 parts of John's Gospel
Pouring over this papyrus and my Greek New Testament I could read parts of John 1:37-38:
ἠκολούθησαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.  στραφεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος αὐτοὺς ἀκολουθοῦντας λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί ζητεῖτε; (...followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and said to them, "What do you seek?")

If I reformat the Greek and take out the spaces (no spaces between words or punctuation in the original) and take out the words on the missing part of the papyrus and make letters light grey that are missing off the edge of the papyrus, you might be able to see on the left hand side of the papyrus just above where the white dashes are (starting just above the top white dash):

σαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.  στραφεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος 
αὐτοὺς                                      ἀκολουθοῦντας

Amazing!  How precious to have these words passed down to us from nearly 2000 years ago.

Seeing the work that has gone on to make the scriptures accessible to us inspires me all the more to delve deep into them to discover what God is saying to us today.  Paul Windsor posted on facebook a link to a wonderful interview with Bono (from U2) and Eugene Peterson recently.  Again, encouraging us to treasure all the scriptures, particularly the Psalms, but even the hard parts, because God speaks through them and helps us be a part of what God is doing today.
Click on the photo to watch this delightful short film and grow your devotion to the scriptures as God's way of enabling us to live an abundant life today.

Bono and Eugene Peterson - Delightful interview by Fuller Theological Seminary


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