“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (12): Megan DeFranza

MKD headshotToday’s “aha” moment is by Megan K. DeFranza (PhD, Marquette University, MA Theology and MA Biblical Languages, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). She is an author, educator, and facilitator of difficult conversations around sexuality and gender in the church. DeFranza has taught Theology, Church History, and The Great Conversation at Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary as an adjunct professor and visiting instructor. She is the author of the forthcoming Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, Eerdmans, 2015) and has also contributed chapters to Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis“Recovering the Spirit of Pentecost: Canon and Catholicity in Postcolonial Perspective” (co-authored with John Franke, IVP, 2014) and “Virtuous Eunuchs: Troubling Conservative and Queer Readings of Intersex and the Bible” in Intersex, Theology, and the Bible: Troubling Bodies in Church, Text, and Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, forthcoming). She lives with her husband Andrew and two daughters in Beverly, MA and blogs at Scholastica’s Seedlings.


The Gifts of an Imperfect (but Wholly Adequate) Bible

When some of my girlfriends hit college, they couldn’t wait to head down to the sand volleyball court and scope out potential dates. Honestly, I was more excited to start Greek. I never considered myself a nerd, just an earnest Midwestern 19-year-old who loved Jesus and wanted to do whatever ministry was allowed for girls like me.

I had been the president of FCA in high school and a counselor at Christian summer camp for several years. I even took a year off between high school and college to work at a missionary school in the Marshall Islands.

In all these years I had worked that inductive Bible study method to the hilt and I wanted more. I wanted to know what God’s Word really said. I wanted answers. I wanted clarity. I wanted to really know what the Bible said, so I could believe it, because that would settle it.

Or so I had hoped.

To be honest, studying Greek did answer some questions. I could more accurately say that some verses did not support certain interpretations… but then, I learned that the Greek in this passage or that passage could be interpreted in one or two other ways… meanings I had never considered when I was working with the English.

As the old joke goes, “The Bible loses something in the original.”

I learned that when Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us today our daily bread” that “daily bread” could mean bread for “today” but it could also, maybe even more probably, mean the “bread for that day” or the “bread for tomorrow.”

Jesus might very well have been speaking of a future feast, the kingdom banquet. The Lord’s Prayer was not just about praying for my needs today but directing me with almost every phrase toward to the future of God’s reign already breaking into the present.

Greek led to theology. I was hooked.

Reading Greek made me feel like I was getting closer to Jesus. There are some Bibles that put the words of Jesus in red so you can focus on the “most important” words—when the Word spoke words. But in college I felt like I was getting even closer: the real words behind the red translation.

I studied those words of Jesus and as I did, I discovered that these words didn’t always match up with each other. Matthew’s record didn’t follow the exact working as Mark, Mark didn’t always match up with Luke, and John… Well, I soon learned that John had very different priorities.

First, I was told not to worry; that Jesus probably preached the same sermon at different times and in different places (cf. Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6, 12-14). Few of us say it exactly the same every time—even when we preach from notes. Still, in other places, the details just didn’t match up.

It didn’t seem plausible that two Centurions from Capernaum asked Jesus to heal their slaves and made a point about Jesus’ authority by indicating that he need not set foot under the roof to perform the miracle. In Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 they speak the same words but in Matthew he comes in person while in Luke a messenger is sent instead.

The main point did not seem to be at issue but the details… Well, let’s just say they didn’t match up as perfectly as I had expected.

Add to this the growing scholarly consensus that Jesus’ primary ministry was not in Greek. This shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, he confessed that his mission was to preach to the “lost sheep of Israel,” to the Jews not the Gentiles (Mt. 15:24). Jews and Gentiles spoke Greek when in the marketplace but when among their own they probably spoke their own language—Aramaic.

We can hear Jesus speaking his first language at some of his most intimate moments. In the Garden, he prays “Abba” (Mk. 14:36). From the cross, he cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Mt. 27:46), not in the Hebrew original of Psalm 22 but in Aramaic… a translation.

So much for getting back to the original words of Jesus! These seemed more distant to me than ever.

Evangelicals put a lot of stock in the original languages so you may understand my disappointment. I went on to study not only Greek but also Hebrew and eventually even a little Aramaic. What I now find ironic is that God does not seem to share this evangelical obsession for a perfect record in the original.

If God were concerned that we have Jesus’ words exactly as they were preached, we would probably have them in Aramaic and each Gospel account would match up every time. But this is not what we have.

We have translations.

We have testimonies.

We have humans passing on the words as they remembered them, the action as they saw it, and as they made sense of it years later.

And while all of this may trouble those of us those of us raised with evangelical expectations about Scripture, especially the central importance of the grammatical-historical method; apparently, God feels quite differently about the whole thing.

God is perfect, but God’s word has not come to us in a form some of us would consider perfect. It comes powerfully. It comes profoundly. It comes purposefully, but it does not come wrapped in scientifically proven perfection.

At first, I found this troubling, but as a recovering perfectionist myself (thanks, Brené Brown) I am slowing coming to see this as grace.

It is easy for me to fear that my lack of perfection hinders the power of the Word. But when I remember that God’s word does not go forth and return void, no matter how feeble the articulation, I start to see glimmers of hope. I have started to thank God for the gift of an imperfect Bible because it gives me hope that the same God who inspired the earthy disciples of old can also breathe through me… and you.

God’s word is perfect. It is exactly what we need. It is truth and hope and life and revelation. But it is not delivered in a perfect package. We are still unlocking mysteries, correcting misunderstandings, and unearthing new evidence. God is not done speaking. This, too, is grace.

Thanks be to the Living, Speaking God!

(For a more thorough and academic treatment of some of the themes here, see DeFranza’s recent chapter in Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations, “Recovering the Spirit of Pentecost: Canon and Catholicity in Postcolonial Perspective,” co-authored with John Franke, IVP, 2014.)

"aha" moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (18): Rob Dalrymple
"aha" moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (16): Jeannine Brown
"aha" moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (17): Michael Halcomb
“aha” moments (19): Jared Byas
  • Randy

    Nice article.

  • http://blog.christilling.de Chris Tilling

    Nice article, thanks Megan. I like the fact that you focus on Synoptic parallels as the thing that led you to important questions, not first and foremost the reasoning of “critical scholarship” etc. (as wonderful and useful as such scholarship can be)

    You write: “God’s word is perfect. It is exactly what we need. It is truth and hope and life and revelation. But it is not delivered in a perfect package.”

    I suppose some may respond: If it is perfect, why can’t it be inerrant? But your prolepsis, at this point, is what fascinated me. In light of your claim, you seem to imply a distinction between God’s word “unadorned” and God’s word “in a package” (as it addresses humans in human speak?). But does God’s word exist unadorned? And if it becomes imperfect when it encounters human speak, how does it relate to God’s perfect word and God continuing communication to which you allude (God is not done speaking)? In other words, I suppose I’m asking what is God’s word is if it is not already communication with humans? I.e., I’m wondering if you can offer clarification regarding some of the theological commitments implied by your fascinating end paragraphs!

    Nice job!

    • Brian P.

      Personally, my mind drifted a bit off into the Cartesian and essentially a homunculus kind of argument applied to an agency of the Bible. That there’s an unadorned “God’s word” that is intermedial between the “package” and the “God” really doesn’t do anything but add a discretely labeled level of indirection into a possible continuity of infinite regress. Personally I wonder if inerrancy’s emphases rest on modern philosophical assumptions that the Bible’s authors and audiences didn’t really have. Is there a Turing Test for Divine Inspiration? No. Discussions on what is and isn’t inerrant and what inerrancy is and isn’t can easily devolve into meaninglessness. If we can find a comfort or agreement on what it means, it is proximal only; we’ve achieved a feel-good about what we can materialistically touch, see, and maybe know. That we shift the false certainty onto the unknowability of the Divine is a game we play with ourselves. It’s a game we haven’t played all that well since the Enlightenment. The whole “original mss” thing isn’t too different. Alas.

      • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

        Brian, good points… especially the one about false certainty and “unknowability of the Divine”. I shudder to think how readily I used to relegate issues crying out for a different paradigm of interpretation to the “higher ways” or infinitude of God… a mystery. Well, yeaaaah… in some ways, but not as a safe “retreat” for actual contradictions or linguistically inconsistent terms. This is all-to-ready a reaction within Evangelical thinking.

        And definitely, biblical authors had a much different method and mental framework than we moderns (or postmoderns) for the “midrash” and other approaches that created the Bible. Actually, though poorly understood by most, I’ve found, some key postmodern theorems bring us back closer to ancient ones. Important as it was, the Enlightenment spawned a major side-track re. rationality and scientism that we have yet to fully emerge from.

    • http://prochaskas.wordpress.com/ Marcy

      I may be overly simplistic here, or unfounded, but in that sentence I took the first perfect as “perfect according to God” and the second as “perfect according to us, to our expectations / desires”…

      I have also thought that the constructivists and whatever one calls the other side (positivists??) are both right — that there is objective truth out there, a real God and a real universe — but that we cannot apprehend them except through our finitude and filters — so that our hope is to construct models or understandings that more and more closely approach the reality.

  • Julie

    What a beautiful testimony.

  • Ralph Locklin

    I just want to give a thumbs up to Chris Tilling’s comments. This is the first written work I have read that connected God’s grace with the striving of imperfect and limited humans to fully understand and appreciate what God is saying.

  • Soyeong

    Dr. Mike Licona has documented 60 pages of differences in the Gospels in the Greek. In looking to understand why there are these differences, he’s done research into other Greco-Roman biographies and Plutarch in particular. Plutarch has nine biographies of people who lived at the same time, so he recounted a number of the same events more than once, but he told them differently. What Licona found was that the differences form patterns, which strongly suggests that they are intentional literary devices. Furthermore, these same literary devices are found all throughout the Gospels and explain most of the differences.

    For example, one of the devices is transference, in which the author knowingly takes the words from one person and puts them in the mouth of another. This happened in Plutarch when someone sent a messenger, and he simply cut out the messenger and had the person who was behind the message deliver it instead. This is exactly what we see happening in the Bible with the Centurion. Another example is in Matthew when the mother of James and John came to Jesus and asked him a favor. Mark simply cuts out the mother and has James and John directly asking Jesus because they were behind it and put their mother up to it.

    What this means is that we need to adjust our understanding inerrancy. We have different standard of accuracy, but I think we need to judge the innerancy of the Gospels by the standard of which they were written.


  • JIZ

    Thank you for your post. Your reference to the two accounts of the centurion led me to the relevant passages in the Catena Aurea, and I see that Aquinas did not ignore the differences, but quoted Chrysostom and Augustine on the subject.

    Lapide, too, in his Renaissance commentary reflected on what he called the antilogy in the two Gospel accounts. He states that Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Euthymius held one position, while Augustine and Bede held another. At any rate, it is interesting that this has been a subject of prayerful scholarly reflection for over 1,600 years.

  • Tim

    Thanks for this. It actually makes perfect sense to me. God sent Jesus in an “imperfect and unexpected” way as well. But it all depends on what our perceptions and expectations are to begin with. I think the Pharisees missed who Jesus was because he wasn’t what they were expecting. I think we have a tendency to do the same thing with the scriptures.