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

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (12): Megan DeFranza August 1, 2014

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.

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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.)

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