Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sacrilege

by John D Ramsey

I sat on the third row Sunday morning, but I missed Mark’s sermon entirely. I do not think I heard him say one word. We read part of Romans 2 from the New Living Translation in unison as it was projected on screen. I stopped reading aloud because the projected words did not sound like Scripture to me. “You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples?” the congregation droned.

No way, I thought. The Apostle Paul did not write that! My mind went blank. I could not remember what I knew I should be reading. Yet, the words from the NLT were very unfamiliar. I reached down, picked up my Apostolic Bible Polyglot, and navigated to Romans 2. I read the interlinear translation and sighed. That makes sense, I thought. I checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, and YLT using Laridian’s PocketBible on my phone. I smiled. Theirs were at least honest mistranslations. While the NLT rendering was just plain fiction, the NASB renders the translation as, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”

The Greek word the NASB translates “do you rob temples” is “hierosuleis.” Hierosuleis translates literally to “you rob temples.” Most translations phrase this as a rhetorical question. Of course the secret of the rhetorical question is that the answer is “yes” or “no” and obvious from the context. Asking, “Do you rob temples,” rhetorically is equivalent to saying “you rob temples” emphatically. Readers probably understood Paul’s statement to be a rhetorical question. Yet when we read in the NLT, the rhetorical question is no longer rhetorical. Do I use items stolen from pagan temples? Emphatically, “No!”

Consequently, the translators of the NLT deflect Paul’s accusation into irrelevance. It might have pertained to a subset of Roman Jews in the first century, but it does not pertain to modern evangelical Christians and certainly not to me. Unless, of course, I somehow actually use items stolen from pagan temples, in which case it would pertain. In any case, I can assure you that I do not “use items stolen from pagan temples.”

Obviously, the NLT has added more words than are present in the original Greek. In the Greek text, there is no conjunction, nor is there a verb “use” or a noun “items.” In the Greek text, there is no adjective “stolen” nor does the word “pagan” appear in this passage. The NLT translators have constructed a rather elaborate fiction from one word in the Greek text. They incriminate anyone who uses stolen items from pagan temples by comparing this specific act to the sin of idolatry – big deal, it does not apply to most.

Other translations render “hierosuleis” literally, saying, “Do you rob temples?” Even so, their rhetorical question misses the mark, because my answer is still, “No, I do not rob temples.” Was Paul really accusing the Roman Jews of robbing temples? Not at all. The word “hierosuleo” derives from two words in the Greek: hiero, which means, “temple,” and suleo, which means, “I rob.” However, the idea encapsulated in hierosuleo is abstract not literal.

The linguistic construction of heirosuleo is the same as the construction of the English word sacrilege. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, sacrilege derives from two Latin words, “sacr” and “legere” meaning “sacred” and “steal.” The word sacrilegus then would be “one who robs sacred property.”

When we say someone is sacrilegious, we do not intend to say that they steal sacred items in any literal sense. Rather, we understand sacrilege to mean irreverence toward something holy. For instance, intentionally mistranslating Scripture shows a gross irreverence to God and his Word. Such a translation would be sacrilegious.

The English word “sacrilege” is a linguistic equivalent to the Greek word heirosuleo. Consequently, the KJV, NIV, and NASB translators erred when they chose a literal translation for an abstract term. The KJV, NASB, and NIV Bible translators succeeded in conveying the literal meaning of the word’s components, but they missed the idea encapsulated by the compound word, hierosuleo. Still, their error does not rise to the level of deliberate deception. It obfuscates, but it is not sacrilege.

The translators of the New Living Translation, on the other hand, added narrative that did not correlate to either the literal or abstract meaning of the Greek – the word pagan is neither present nor implied! Had the translators of the New Living Translation rendered Romans 2:22 as “You condemn idolatry; do you commit sacrilege?” instead of fabricating an elaborate work of human imagination, they would not be guilty, in this instance, of committing sacrilege.

Ironical, isn’t it? Even if they had translated the verse saying, “You condemn idolatry; have you ever been irreverent toward God?” they would have been truer to the meaning of the passage.

Paul’s rhetorical question, “Do you commit sacrilege?” hits a little closer to home than the portrait of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that the NLT translators portray. Sacrilege, remember, is irreverence toward something holy.

The Jews to whom Paul was writing were legalistic; they viewed themselves as better than others. They preached the Mosaic Law, yet they did not practice what they preached. Paul was setting the background to prove that the Law could not give life, it could only condemn. The proponents of the Law disparaged God by their own disobedience.

Paul’s first two examples of this phenomenon were those who say, “Do not steal,” yet steal; and those who say, “Do not commit adultery,” yet commit adultery. Certainly, not everyone steals or commits adultery, yet those who do not steal but covet still violate the Law. Likewise, Jesus explained in Matthew 5 that lust is the moral equivalent of adultery. In Romans 2, Paul intended his third example to be similarly inclusive and the most serious offense on his short list: By twisting Paul’s question, “Do you commit sacrilege?” into a specific and unlikely scenario, the translators weakened Paul’s foundational argument. Paul was not trying paint in narrow strokes; he was trying to color all men as violators of God's Law.

If sacrilege is irreverence toward that which is holy, then all men become guilty. Regardless of your reverence toward God, it falls short of what it should be. Condemning idolatry from the basis of Law without maintaining a perfect heart toward God is sacrilege. In fact, presenting the Law as a solution to sin is sacrilege because it no one can uphold the Law ,and only hypocrites claim that they do.

Those who seek justification by the Law accomplish only worthless self-justification. In the recent movie, Appaloosa, Viggo Mortensen’s character, Hitch, contemplates killing a man who had escaped justice, saying, “I shot a man in Tres Piedras years ago . . . Only time I killed that wasn’t legal.” He justifies murder because his killing has been predominately justified. Hitch does not see himself as a murderer. Likewise, when we justify ourselves according to the Law we must first blind ourselves to our violations of the Law.

Paul’s solution to guilt before the Law was not more Law or self-justification, but rather the grace of God imparted to man by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul tells the Romans,

No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.

Romans 3:20-24 (NIV)

Paul intended his rhetorical accusation, “You condemn idolatry; do you commit sacrilege?” to convict us of irreverence and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Bible translators have obfuscated the clarity of Paul’s thought. Rather than convicting, their translations rather invite the reader to assert self-justification – “I do not rob temples. I do not use items stolen from pagan temples.” Rather than justify ourselves, we should realize that our prideful self-justification is sacrilege because it discounts the importance of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. We should cling to the justification that comes from God apart from the Law – the justification that comes freely by grace through the redemption offered by Jesus Christ.

5 comments:

  1. Most everytime that I have read NLT it does not do the Scripture any justice. There are many better translations that should be picked before that one.
    brian

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  2. It's hard to find justice in a translation, because it will never be more than a contextualized translation - if it is justice you seek then you'd better brush up on your Hebrew and Greek.

    But, not sure if you guys have heard of the Voice translation - it is amazing. They only have the NT out now - but you should definitely pick up a copy and read about the project. Mad cool.

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  3. How would his Torah knowledgeable Jewish audience understand it? Looking at the complete statement "You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?" When one reads 1 Sam 2:12-26. You see robbery and adultery there by men in the priesthood that are supposed to be guides to the people. Is there a connection there?

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  4. Even if Paul was referring to the son's of Eli (Samuel is not in the Torah but the Nevi'im), the NLT translators took egregious liberty by saying, "pagan temples." The word "pagan" is not present or implied in the text. It comes from nowhere to distort or obfuscate Paul's intent.

    Moreover, in the New Covenant, which Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews preached, there is no physical temple structure (John 4:21-24 & 1 Cor 3:16-17) until the New Jerusalem (Rev 21).

    Even Peter, says, "you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Pet 2:5)

    Because the temple of the New Covenant is a spiritual house, robbing the temple is abstract rather than concrete -- it must be a spiritual attitude akin to idolatry rather than any specific physical action. In a similar fashion, Jesus equated hate with murder and lust with adultery in Matthew 5.

    From a New Covenant perspective the best English translation is still, "you abhor idols, do you commit sacrilege?"

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  5. ByTheBibleMarch 03, 2012

    Thank you for your writings here. You did help me to come to a better understanding.



    The Oxford English Dictionary defines sacrilege as follows:

    "1. The crime or sin of stealing or misappropriating what is consecrated to God's service."

    I believe that if read in context, taking special note of the verses following verse 22, Paul is talking about misusing something holy by exalting it to a God-like status, which is what the Jews were doing with circumcision. The Jews were using circumcision to save, exalting it to be their savior, and therefore exalting it to be their god---an idol. This is clear, I believe, if the few verses below it are read. He was simply asking, "Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou make holy things into idols (by misusing them, and making them into your god)?"

    Hope this was a help.

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