Recently a friend from my church sent me a question on Facebook. She had read Revelation 8:13 out of both the New King James Version (NKJV) and the NIV (New International Version). The NKJV said that in one of John’s visions he heard an angel flying through the middle of heaven crying out woes over the earth. But the NIV said it was an eagle that was flying, not an angel. She wanted to know how two such different English translations could come from the same Greek word.
Here’s what I wrote her in reply:
Ah, the perils of using the KJV (or the NKJV)! :) The translators of the KJV did a marvelous job for their day with the couple dozen manuscripts available to them. But now we have rediscovered thousands, including dozens earlier and more reliable than what the KJV translators had access to. What is remarkable is how carefully preserved in general the Bible was, but there are differences.
The NKJV updated the language of the KJV but intentionally didn't change the manuscript base from which they worked. Some editions of the NKJV have footnotes alerting readers to the places where all other modern translations use a different textual basis but not all editions do this.
So, with that long-winded introduction, the short answer to your question is that “eagle” and “angel” DON'T both come from the same Greek word! The dozens of oldest and most reliable manuscripts have aetos, which means “eagle.” A handful of manuscripts, used by the KJV and NKJV, have angelos, which means “angel.” And a large number of very late manuscripts, reflecting scribal indecision and an attempt to harmonize the two readings, have henos angelos hos aetos, which means “one angel like an eagle”!
I’ve had enough experience with instances where the KJV and NKJV alone have one reading and all other translations of any recent vintage have a different one that I was pretty sure of my answer before even turning to my reference works. But for pastors and students used to working exclusively with the UBS (United Bible Societies’) Greek New Testament, you’ll find nothing at Revelation 8:13 to disclose any textual variants. Remember that the UBS includes only about 1400 of what they deem to be the very most important or interesting variants out of a much larger number that they could have used.) The NA (Nestle-Aland) Greek New Testament, on the other hand, gives many more variants but, to conserve space, offers only very selective manuscript evidence to go along with each. The Word Biblical Commentary series also tends to give more detailed textual-critical information than any other commentary series today does, in small print, right after the translation of each passage and before the actual commentary proper on a passage begins. David Aune’s 3-volume masterpiece in the WBC gives as full a collection of textual variants as any volume in the NT part of the series (David Clines wins the award for his work on Job in the OT WBC volumes). So, Aune gave me the information I was able to provide for my friend in the above quoted paragraphs.
The NIV has way outsold other English translations of the Bible since it first appeared in 1978. Before the proliferation of several new translations that appeared in the last decade, it accounted for as much as 42% of all English Bibles purchased worldwide, though more recently it has dipped to closer to 30%. The KJV has frequently come in at about 20%, with the NKJV sometimes almost as high though usually in the mid-teens. The NLT has also often hovered around 20%, with no other translation even in double digits, percentagewise, of the “market share” in the last decade, though the ESV is starting to come close.
But why does the NKJV get this much attention? If you’re really in to the Elizabethan style of the KJV, it ruins it. If you can’t understand the KJV or simply value more modern English, there are a plethora of options for you. The only reason for retaining the NKJV is if you are among the less than one-tenth of one percent of all textual critics in the world who actually think the KJV and NKJV did use the better manuscripts. But lots more people than that have for some reason decided that the NKJV is for them. May I respectfully suggest they are misled.
Time to put the NKJV on the shelf if you own one and get a modern translation that uses an accurate textual base.
(Perceptive readers may recall previous blogs in which I argued that we should stop so much squabbling about the modern translations because they all have a place and something to contribute. I’m not contradicting myself in this blog, merely clarifying that, even though the English got updated in the NKJV, and even though it was published in the 1970s, it does not qualify as one of the truly “modern” translations that I was thinking about.)
Not long ago an unsolicited e-mail asked me to comment on a skeptic’s blogsite that had posted a list of about twenty “historians” from the Jewish, Greek or Roman worlds of around the time of Christ. Not one of them ever mentioned Jesus, the blogger pointed out. Surely that should cast serious doubt on whether the Jesus Christians worship ever even existed.
It was an intriguing list. There were a few names I didn’t recognize that I had to look up, but most were indeed ancient writers from one of those three cultures. The trouble was that only about a third of them could be legitimately called historians. One was an ancient taxonomist who wrote about flora and fauna. A couple were writers on medicine or ancient science. Two were geographers. Several were poets and playwrights.
Of those who were truly historians, several did indeed live “around the time of Christ” but just a little bit before him. Gee, I wonder why they never mentioned him! Several others were actually second- or third-century writers not writing about life in Israel at all but about other parts of the Roman empire. In short, there wasn’t a single name on the list for which there would have been good reason for Jesus even to have been mentioned.
At least this blogger had the wherewithal to acknowledge that the first-century Jewish historian does twice refer to Jesus and that early second-century Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius do too. He obviously just had no idea who all these other folks were, and, in fact, acknowledged that he had taken the list from some obscure book published early in the twentieth century.
In our age of growing disinterest in history and classics (i.e., Greek and Roman language, history and literature) more generally, his faux pas isn’t surprising I guess. What is surprising to me, but perhaps it shouldn’t be either, are the number of people who ask why, even granted these late-first- and early-second-century witnesses, historians who wrote closer in time to Jesus’ ministry (probably 27 or 28 through 30 A.D.) didn’t refer to Jesus.
The question I always want to ask is “And which individuals are these who you think should have referred to Jesus?” The fact is that we no longer have in existence the writings of a single Jewish, Greek, or Roman historian who wrote about life in Israel during the first third of the first century. And even those whose names we know about, because later authors refer to them, are precious few in number, and we typically know little if anything of the contents of their writings. It’s hard for non-existent sources to reference Christ, or anyone else for that matter.
So why do so many atheists “buy” this meaningless argument from silence without even questioning whether sources exist in which we should expect to find something about Jesus but don’t. The only answer I can think of is that they really aren’t interested in learning truth, only in challenging it, and that without even being curious to find out what they don’t know that they don’t know!
G. K. Chesterton put it well a century ago. When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything!
This week I got blindsided by someone who had let a lot of minor frustrations in his life build up throughout the fall until I unwittingly proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. All his fury was unleashed on me. Fortunately, only three days later, he profusely apologized and I gladly and quickly made amends. Reconciliation in ministry is often not that easy.
Pastors frequently testify to one or a small number of parishioners who remain a thorn in their flesh for years on end. They typically assume the worst of motives in their leaders, spread gossip—often a core of truth supplemented by false inferences, misleading embellishments, and negative innuendos. It can be extraordinarily difficult to know when to respond to unfair charges being made against oneself, risking an escalation of the problem, and when to try to ignore them in hopes that they will go away, but leaving others to believe untrue things about one. Many pastors try proactively to be very controlling with their congregations in hopes that people will be afraid to cross them. The strategy can work reasonably well, but it doesn’t foster good will and is not what Peter describes in [1 Peter 5:1-4].
Peter’s original audience included numerous Christian congregations in various Roman provinces in what today we would call Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1). They were undergoing local harassment for their faith (4:3-4) with Nero’s persecution looming on the horizon. If evidence from a slightly later period of time is at all representative, they were probably targets of many false representations of their beliefs and practices, mixed in with accurate descriptions of that which already repulsed the Hellenistic world. If anyone had accepted church leadership in hopes of satisfying their desires for power and influence, they might well have been tempted to resign as the situation grew bleaker. Peter uses a series of three contrasts in 5:2-3 to challenge the elders/overseers/shepherds of these churches to to reflect on their motives for leadership and to encourage them not to give up. They should serve willingly, not for reward or status, and not autocratically. The term for “dishonest gain” could also mean “shameful gain” or “foolish gain.” Peter’s point could be that people are not to desire too much or inappropriate or ill-gotten gain, but more likely any time one’s motive for ministry is what one can get out of it one has lapsed into that which is dishonest, shameful or foolish.
How can Christian leaders continue to follow this counter-intuitive approach? Central to the answer to this question is recognizing the eternal glory that awaits us after we suffer. Verses 1 and 4 bracket Peter’s trio of contrasts by reminding us of the everlasting rewards of the life to come. As I think back on some of the models of leadership that have had the best impact on me over the years, I recall individuals who were secure enough in what they stood for and strong enough in their walk with the Lord that when people unjustly abused them, they didn’t fight back but quietly prayed for their oppressors and just kept moving forward in obedience to God. Dr. Vernon Grounds, professor, dean, president and chancellor of Denver Seminary (in that order) for 59 years, who passed away at age 96, may have been one of the best models ever of letting such criticism leave him undeterred, unruffled, and still kind to his critics.
I can’t pretend that I’ve even come close to his model. But with 41 fewer years of life thus far, maybe I can still grow a little more. If the king of kings could become a human embryo, he can surely help me to become more humble and less defensive and self-justifying!
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23)
Timothy George wrote an excellent book exploring the similarities and differences between central Christian and Muslim beliefs, published in 2002, and provocatively entitled Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Among other things, George observed that Old Testament Jews were strict monotheists, much like Muslims. Without an explicit concept of the Trinity, prior to the coming of Christ and New Testament revelation, their doctrine of God closely resembled Muslim understanding of Allah. In fact, the etymologies of Allah and El (or Elohim), a common Hebrew name for God in the Old Testament are probably related in pre-Arabic, pre-Hebraic Semitic tongues. Jews who did not become followers of Jesus often stumbled over the very thing Muslims do, the notion of the deity of Jesus or of a Triune God more generally. So perhaps Muslim views of Allah approximate pre-Christian Jewish understandings of Yahweh. Because the New Testament can properly speak of Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, as Jesus’ father, then maybe the Father of Jesus is the God of Muhammad.
George, however, concludes that this is going too far. The God of the Old Testament was a Triune God from all eternity past, whether most Jews ever realized it or not. There are at least hints of a plurality within the Godhead in the Old Testament in ways there are not in the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Old Testament that unequivocally states that God cannot have a Son, as repeatedly appears in the holy book of Islam. Read both the Jewish Scriptures and the Qur’an and despite the occasional picture of Allah as compassionate, the dominant impression one gets is of an all-powerful, all-knowing being whose mood is almost always one of judgment, primarily on outsiders to Islam. Read the Old Testament—actually read the whole thing and don’t just trust someone else’s simplistic summary—and Yahweh, God of Israel, is predominantly a God of love. When judgment does appear, most of the time it is against God’s own people. The major exception, with the inhabitants of Canaan in the days of Joshua, came only after centuries of God’s patience, until their sins had reached “full measure” (Gen. 15:16).
But one of our readers asks me to address this issue via a slightly different question: Can Allah and God ever be used interchangeably? Here I would agree with many missiologists, especially some who have served in Muslim contexts, that the answer is yes, so long as one goes on to define one’s terms carefully.
That’s exactly what Paul did on Mars Hill. Using theos, the general term for G/god in the Greek language, and based on an inscription to an unknown theos, he proceeded to define the term for the Athenians more accurately. But he never abandoned the term. “God” is an exceedingly common word for God in the Bible! There are plenty of accounts from the history of Christian missions of missionaries insisting on using a foreign word for God, or even creating a new word, in a given language because they cannot accept any indigenous word as close enough in meaning to the God of Scripture. Inevitably, additional barriers have been erected for the acceptance of the Gospel. Now in some instances, this may have been unavoidable, if no term exists that is not inherently polytheistic.
But in Arabic, Allah is as monotheistic as words come. Arabic Christians, before Islam was even birthed in the seventh century, used Allah to translate the biblical words for God. Here is a history we can draw on. Theos, of course, was used by Greek translators of the Septuagint, long before the coming of Christ, despite it being a term very susceptible to polytheistic overtones, but not inherently so.
So it all depends on context. If one can use Allah and explain what one means by it and this is a bridge for sharing Christian beliefs, by all means use it. If among a different group of people, it is inextricable from distinctively Islamic tenets, one may have to abandon it. Great discernment is needed either way.
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College. Before joining the faculty of Denver Seminary, he taught at Palm Beach Atlantic College and was a research fellow in Cambridge, England with Tyndale House.
In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians and James, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions; Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions; Preaching the Parables; Contagious Holines: Jesus' Meals with Sinners; and Handbook of New Testament Exegesis.
For more, visit Denver Seminary.