linguistic complexities of Biblical interpretation

Cervantes once complained that reading a translation was, “like looking at the Flanders tapestries from behind: you can see the basic shapes, but they are so filled with threads that you cannot fathom their original lustre.” And the translations of ancient texts is perhaps even further frustrating. Entirely dependent on context and personal discretion, the intention of a translated text is both taught and internalized based entirely on assumption.The act of translation contingent on the decisions made by translator, yielding inherent gaps in discourse and rhetoric.

The Bible in particular is considerably vulnerable to these linguistic puzzles. Available now in 2,454 languages, it is impossible to achieve both a formal and dynamic etymological equivalence when the Bible is filtered from the original Greek form. And the alternative renderings are exegetically significant, for the simple reason that the foundations of Christian faith are partially predicated on linguistic guesswork. The intention of translated text becoming both taught and internalized based almost entirely on assumption.

Take, for instance, the Greek word ‘pistis’ πιστις as it appears in Paul. ‘Pistis’ is most directly translatable as “faith,” though in the Pauline gospel it is employed as a complex noun-verb hybrid. “The verb form ‘to put one’s faith in’ (or ‘to believe’) appears 42 times in the undisputed letters, while the noun form ‘faith’ (or belief) appears 91 times.” This is where translation first gets complicated though, because in the English language, faith isn’t a verb. The concept of “being faithed” doesn’t translate from Greek to English so in order to compensate for such discrepancies, the term “belief” is often substituted throughout the bible. This work technically because Greek doesn’t differentiate between the two, but in the translated form the differences remain confusing. “Belief,” implies an opposing sentiment of disbelief or doubt. There are also “beliefs” or doctrines which are conceptually separate from the act of believing.

Take this a step further and examine Paul’s actual intention in employing the word pistis. Structurally, “faith” takes on four primary forms. Nearly all English translations use the objective genitive which implies obedience to faith, as illustrated by Rom. 3:22, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.” However the subjective genitive interpretation, that obedience is produced or required by faith, clearly emerges in Rom. 4:9; “faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” Occasionally, ‘pistis’ appears in both the attributive genitive form of believing obedience, and as the genitive of apposition, namely that faith defines obedience (Cranfield: 1985). However it is the subjective v. objective argument that transcends exegeses and it is Paul’s intention for the concept of ‘pistis’ that perpetuates debate. If one is to achieve faith by means of obedience, then what does it mean to obey?

In comparing the Greek to English versions of Paul, an argument can be made for three distinct and scripturally significant definitions of “faith” as they relate to obedience namely; faith as trust, faith as disposition and faith as achievement. These terms are not mutually exclusive- quite the opposite in fact because at the root of each interpretation lies the Pauline the explication for the process of atonement.

Faith as trust is a commitment to the idea that belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is the condition for salvation (1 Corinthians 15.1-4) Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures

This interpretation is illustrated by Galatians 2:20 which affirms, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,” and in Romans 1:17 which reads, “for in the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.” Paul often speaks of trust as a passive verb. We are “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2) and it is through trust that God justifies the believer on the basis of faith, giving sinful men the right to enter into communion with him (Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:8, 11, 24). Paul also describes faith in the sense of disposition; that one can be “faithed” the way one can be curious or competitive. 1 Thessalonians is perhaps the most indicative of faith as disposition. Chapter 3 frequently makes reference to “your faith” (1 Th. 3:2, 3:5, 3:6, 3:7, 3:10) and to “you believers” ( 1 Th. 2:10, 2:13) expressing faith in the possessive as if it were an individual character quality, one that supplicates redemption. Lastly, Paul argues that ‘faith’ is a psychological state of being and that righteousness comes from the augmentation of such countenance. Romans 1:5 for example speaks of grace and apostleship as bringing about “the obedience of faith” or more accurately, “obedience which is faith.” In other words, salvation is an achievement, a specified objective.

The translational discrepancy found in the phrases “faith in christ” v. “faith of christ” cultivates an additional layer of complexity in the exegesis of Pauline interpretation. Does Paul place greater importance on the believer’s faith or Christ’s? The term πιστις, followed by the genitive form of Jesus appears seven times over the course of the Pauline Letters (Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16, Phil. 3:9, Rom 3:22, Gal. 3:22, Gal. 2:16 and Gal. 2:20). Faith in Jesus as an objective genitive, can most accurately be interpreted as the faithful person acknowledging the fact that Jesus sacrificed himself in order that we may have faith as a disposition. In effect, Jesus died so that we may be “faithed.” On the other hand the subjective genitive, faith of christ, indicates faith as achievement. We look to Jesus’ sacrifice as an example of how to achieve faith and understand that we ourselves must ultimately be made sacrifice in order to be absolved of sin. More directly, because Christ was faithful, we too have the capacity to achieve faith.

This dichotomy raises a fundamental question in regards to theology; do we come to understanding (are we “faithed”) because we trust in the significance of the death of Jesus, or does Jesus’ death serve as a guide for achieving faith? Again Rom. 3:22 demonstrates the power of a single word to fundamentally change the intention of a passage. When written as “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” one can assume that by believing in Jesus Christ humans are endowed with a communion of faith and a relationship with God. However the alternative translation, “the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe” implies that by understanding and acting on the Jesus’ example, we will eventually achieve salvation with God.

These distinctions are particularly important however in analyzing Paul’s understanding of sin. According to Paul sin is the unavoidable consequence of being human. It is not something we “have” it is something by which we are persuaded and affected. Will trusting the sacrifice of Jesus as affording us a faithful disposition allow us to be reborn in Christ and escape sin, or must we embody the death of Christ in order to be absolved? Exegetical interpretations render variations the ways in which “faith” are manifest. Both are the means by which the power of sin will be transferred to the power of faith, yet there is a variance in process. The Pauline epistles are replete with such phrasing, and although primary debates favor the subjective genitive, it is arguably that Paul accepts both.

Lastly, as scholar of theology, Leander Keck points out, Paul emphasizes “faith” as contingent on “hearing.” In Rom 1:17 Paul literally writes that, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. Consequently, hearing is the event that awakens faith. Keck argues a threefold importance in Paul’s concern for “hearing;” namely that faith is a response, that the gospel must be articulated in order to be “heard” and that the appropriate response to hearing is heeding. Paul confirms that hearing, necessitates heeding, and that in the act of heeding, Christians make a full commitment to ‘faith.’ This verse is the reason why- as professor of Biblical interpretations, Paul J. Achtemeier, explains- Paul takes his responsibility to preach the gospel so seriously. For Paul, writing was merely as a substitute for his physical presence. “Trust in God was awakened in those who heard the apostolic announcement, which was to be carried to all people everywhere, the announcement that the gracious intentions of God which culminated in Jesus Christ had been present from the beginning of his creation of the world, as they were present throughout his dealings with his chosen people.” The Pauline letters communicate “truth” as the only adequate response to God, with faith as the product of a comprehensive understanding of God’s actions in Christ. By emphatically emphasizing hearing, he correctly surmises that the only way to guarantee the perpetuation of this message is through physical audition, augmented by letters. Paul innately perceives that where Christ is not proclaimed, faith as a response to God’s gifts cannot appear. Hearing is therefore essential to building a lucid foundation of faith.

St. Augustine can be credited with saying, “crede, ut intelligas”- believe in order that you may understand. Translational discrepancies aside, this the premise of Paul’s ‘pisits.’ Paul likely intended for the word to serve as both a noun and verb, clarifying the formative distinction between faith in Christ and faith of Christ, while promulgating the idea that the faithful will be brought to salvation by trusting in God’s intentions. It is true that arguments can be made favoring either the objective or subjective interpretation, yet it’s also likely Paul did not intend for us to choose one over the other. The exegetical ponderosity of ‘pistis’ is thus a source of both historical and theological significance as well as an interesting analysis of a word within the context of a literary text. It is however, imperative that we acknowledge the fact that Paul’s intention is conditioned on the renderings of translation, meaning that the foundations of Christian faith have been partially established upon educated supposition and filtered significance.

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