Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ephesians 4:26-31: it's all Greek to me

The language history of the bible is fascinating to me. Take any parable of Jesus, for instance. He most likely told it in Aramaic. It was written down a few decades later, usually in Greek. From there it was copied around for centuries, sometimes with minor deviations. Eventually it was translated into Latin (the Vulgate) which was pretty much the flagship translation for a thousand years. While there were partial English translations dating all the way back to the 7th century A.D., only in the last few hundred years did full English translations of the bible really take off. Today there are over 50 full English translations of the bible available at most bookstores and hundreds of websites.

Thousands of men and women throughout history have made it their life's priority to translate the bible into their native language, with accuracy and relevance. It is a monumental task.

If you've studied foreign languages, then you know that there isn't always a perfect translation for a word. Sometimes cultural concepts are buried in the word, and often those concepts get lost in translation. Today's post gives a possible example of this.

In the bible we have a copy of a letter a man named Paul wrote to a church in Ephesus. We've called the letter "Ephesians". It is a short yet deep letter full of valuable teaching to a church that was pretty solid, and wasn't facing any specific crises or issues.

To make it easier to find things in the bible, we've also assigned chapters and verses to the writings. My post today is from Ephesians chapter 4, verses 26 through 31. Paul might have called it "scroll three, lines 18 and 19".

Those verses have the word "anger" show up three times in most English translations. For example, here's what it says in the New International Version:

v. 26 -- In your anger do not sin.
v. 26 -- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
v. 31 -- Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.

Verse 26 implies that it's okay to be angry, just don't sin. Then it says to "not let the sun go down", or to not let the anger fester for too long. Then it says to get rid of all anger? Am I the only one confused by that? It sounds like three different things:

1) Be angry
2) Don't be angry for too long
3) Actually, just don't ever be angry

Let's try another translation. Here's the New American Standard version:

v. 26 -- Be angry, and yet do not sin.
v. 26 -- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
v. 31 -- Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you.

The old King James version:

v. 26 -- Be ye angry; and sin not.
v. 26 -- Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
v. 31 -- Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.

Most of those translations were very similar for those verses. How about The Message, a fairly new translation meant to put the bible in approachable, natural language:

v. 26 -- Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry,
v. 26 -- but don't use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don't stay angry. Don't go to bed angry.
v. 31 -- Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk.

I'll cut to the chase and tell you that if it seems like those three uses of the word "anger" are contradictory teachings, then we've missed the point. The point was written in the Greek language, to Greek readers. And while in English we usually see the same word (anger) all three times, in Greek they were three completely different words:

1) Orge (be angry) -- it can mean "a settled habit of the mind", but in this context it's not negative. It's conjugated as "orgizo", which is a permissive imperative. In other words, "Be angry" is probably a good translation, and the word here implies a righteous anger. A gut reaction to seeing evil. Do you get riled up seeing a parent abuse a child? That's orge. That's good.

2) Parorgismos (don't let the sun go down on your anger) -- irritation, bitterness or exasperation are good synonyms for this word. It's what happens when you let things fester too long. One of the main problems here is that it grows and can eventually give you a bias against whole groups of people. Example: Jenny wasn't nice to me. I didn't forgive her. I don't like Jenny. Jenny's from China. I don't like Chinese people now. I'm sure we would never judge a whole race, country, city or church based on our interaction with one person. I know I never have (blush).

3) Thumos (Get rid of all anger) -- explosive rage or revenge. This is the boiling-over type of fury often referred to as a "short fuse" or "going postal". It's not useful or beneficial. It always carries consequences to those who unleash it, and those who receive it. Not good.

So there's indeed a great teaching here from Paul. Nobody asked, but here's the Michael's Unofficial Dialect (MUD) version of the teaching:

v.26 -- Keep your anger in response to the wrong around you. Nurture it. Use it to make the world a better place.
v 26 -- Don't stay irritated at people for more than a few hours. Find a way to forgive. If you don't, your exasperations will blossom into prejudice and hate.
v. 31 -- Rage and revenge have no place in a life of grace. Stay on guard and keep them far from you.

I can also tell you that I've personally experienced all three types of anger this month. That is when the teaching truly becomes powerful -- when you can see it and apply it in your own life.

And just like that, an author who's been dead for 2,000 years reaches across time and makes me a better man. Pretty cool.


hard.rox said...

Very insightful post, Michael. While I've always known there were a number of different translations, I never considered how each interpreted passages differently. You did a great job exposing those differences, as well as explaining your take the verses. When can we expect the complete MUD Bible to hit the shelves?

Bob Barbanes said...

First of all, thank you for your thought-provoking post. Your spirituality comes across very strongly, and it is admirable. Having said that...

So Michael, you are now presuming to interpret the Bible for yourself? If that is the case, why do we need priests and ministers and Popes? And different religions, for that matter? (Didn't Christ himself start a church?) Why don’t we all just interpret the Bible as we individually see fit? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier that way? Oh, and by the way, which Bible do you use for yourself?

When you interpret Ephesians 4:26 you leave off the NIV part about not sinning while angry. "My" Bible (NAB, 1970) also says that verse 26 is, “If you are angry, let it be without sin.” Is this not important? Isn’t “Paul” really telling us to not let our anger get the better of us and hence do something we’ll later regret?

“My” NAB verse 27 agrees that we should not go to bed angry. The NAB verse 28 says, “do not give the devil a chance to work on you,” period. Again, the implication here is to not sin while you are angry without getting too specific.

My problem with any such translations or interpretations is that, more than just giving us spiritual guidance, some Bibles do seek to get into the details and control how we behave. The old KJV makes verse 28 about “evil-speaking,” while The Message proscribes cutting, backbiting and profane talk.

What? Evil-speaking? Profane talk?? How do they get that from what Paul wrote? And while we’re at it, just exactly what did Paul write? The NAB casts serious footnoted doubts that Paul is the actual author of this epistle.

Seems to me that all of these modern English translations are really just approximations of what may or may not have been written. Then religions take these “new and improved” verses and use them as the specific Rules To Live By. “Follow them or you’re going to hell. And we can prove it. Says so right here!”

This is why I have sadly come to reject religion and reject the traditional Bible(s) as being no more valid than Joseph Smith’s “restored” version, The Book of Mormon. This is heartbreaking for me, because I absolutely believe in God the Creator, and that he sent his son to be his human manifestation here on earth (there is physical evidence of the latter).

As for everything else, there are not only too many questions but too many conflicting answers, most of which will never be answered - and certainly cannot be answered by the Bible (pick one?).

Redlefty said...

Bob, thank you for your in-depth and heartfelt response. Intense thought like that is the highest respect I can receive. Here’s a stab at some of your excellent questions:
First, we agree on many things. We both agree that it’s impossible to definitively prove who wrote the original biblical texts. And impossible to use those writings to come up with the definitive answers to life, because interpretations conflict. There are brilliant and well-meaning scholars all over the world, and all throughout history, who have dedicated their life to biblical exegesis and come away with different answers. Who are we to presume we have it right? I agree.
Now on where we differ. First are our backgrounds. Your quoting of the NAB leads me to assume you were formally Catholic, or raised in a Catholic household? I was raised in the Church of Christ, which came out of the Stone-Campbell restoration movement 200 years ago (it’s on Wikipedia for more detail). It’s a very recent and small group (1 million members in the U.S.) compared to the Catholic Church. My upbringing included teaching that yes, I am to interpret the bible myself. No priests or popes are part of the picture. No church organization or hierarchies, no appointed leaders who have a say over the rules of my salvation, no universal agreement on which bible translation is best.
I fully admit that this background has shaped my spiritual demeanor and tendencies in a massive way. It’s hard for me to even conceive of submitting to a bishop or pope for their ruling of God’s will. Yet I can see how for some people, it would be hard to conceive of anything but that. If I had been raised Catholic the odds would heavily favor me feeling the same way.
We differ on the rejection of all religion and the bible. While I am not a fundamentalist, and don’t see the bible as literally and exclusively as many Christians, I think it is amazingly useful. And I think religion can be just as useful. And I’m not just talking about Christianity.
Regarding my non-inclusion of “do not sin” in my first paraphrase of verse 26, that was an oversight. But it doesn’t change my main point. If it’s okay to be angry without sinning, why say four verses later that we should get rid of all anger? That was my recurring confusion that led me back to the original language. I admit that the wording is such that it may not cause a problem for others, but to me it seemed like the author was trying to make a real point about anger, and I was missing it in my English bibles.
To your question of which translation I use, I use a bunch. Here are some acronyms – NIV, NAS, RSV, NRS, NLT, KJ, NKJ, and many more. I bought a software package called Logos a few years ago that allows me to see multiple translations, and scholar commentaries, all on the same screen. It’s also useful for Greek and Hebrew word study. I’m loyal to no particular translation. They’re all useful to me in different ways.
Again, it is the highest honor to have a discourse like this with you. And while I am initially saddened to hear of your response to religion’s weaknesses, perhaps that is your best path. You and I both believe that there’s more going on behind the scenes that we can’t see. And I believe we’re both contributing to it, friend.
Email me anytime at

~aj~ said...

Great post, Michael! I'm going to add some of these notes to my study bible.

Hal Johnson said...

That was an illuminating post, Michael, and the discourse between you and Bob could hold up as a model to prove that folks can disagree without being disagreeable.

My own view is something intermediate between you and Bob, I suppose. I've never believed that any version of the Bible was infallible, but I do believe there is much truth and guidance there. I'm sort of torn on the subject of organized religion: I think it can be the cause of rigid, narrow minded thinking (in some folds), but I also think the church can instill a strong sense of community. In the U.S., I think too many people live with no sense of community or unifying culture, and that might explain the weakening of mores we've seen in the last three or four decades--or at least partly explain it.

I really enjoyed this post and discussion. I wish we could see more of this sort of dialogue in today's world.

Bob Barbanes said...

Michael, you're right, I was brought up in the Catholic Church. I am proud of my Catholic heritage even as pained as I am to stray from it. But the whole concept of, "This is a mortal sin and if you do it you are going to hell!" is just silly- in my humble opinion. I know that I will be with God when I die. I know it.

So-called "Christians" (especially the Baptists down here!) believe what they believe, and damn well expect you to believe it too. Larry King put Joel Osteen on the spot when he asked him point-blank if Joel believed that only "Christians" (ie those who'd accepted Christ as their savior) were going to heaven? Joel squirmed, unwilling to say in public what he would tell you in private: "Believe what I believe or you're going to hell." They've said as much to me.

And yete I fully agree with Hal that religion and membership in a church provides a real, solid sense of spiritual community that is necessary for our souls. I hadn't been to church in literally years, but went one recent Easter. The feeling I got was bizarre, to say the least. It's hard to explain, but I immediately felt "at home" in the Catholic church. I felt welcomed (and not just by the other parishoners, who did) and incredibly comfortable. It was most odd. Perhaps it was just the familiarity of the setting, but it felt really, really good.

So who am I to say that "religion" is not valid or valuable? On the other hand, I'm not a subscriber to the boutique attitude of picking a religion that suits you. I was baptized a Catholic and I suppose I will always be one.

Such is the conflict and struggle some of us go through. I wish I knew more...I wish we didn't have to wait until we die for the answers. Because at best, we just think we have them now.

RedWifey said...

Bob, I think one MAJOR theme of the Bible (any one you pick up) is that God desires relationship with his creation, and I believe that when you walked into that church it was more than just "feeling like home." I really believe that God's spirit (that lives in you) welcoming you back.

Bob Barbanes said...

Jamie, I would not - could not - dispute that. My shame is that I don't visit His house more often. But here or there, the presence of God within me is very real. Sadly, the atheist would tell me it's merely an illusion or hallucination. And how wrong he would be.

James W said...

This has been my favorite post you have done Michael. I really enjoyed the amount of research you put into these verses. I also really enjoyed the comments that have been posted so far as well. Kind of odd for a "Baptist" to be so open minded! :)

RedWifey said...

So, Bob, I would encourage you to nurture that desire to be in His house...there are always blessings from being closer to Him.

Also, Michael always says, "You gotta be what you want to see." So maybe you can be full of grace and love when you come into contact with the hard line Christians?

I would also guess that Joel Olsteen's answer was a little more complicated than yes or no, and maybe (I don't know as I didn't watch that program) he wasn't sure that LK was willing to listen without already being convinced of what JO was going to say. I dunno, it's just another way of interpreting his squirming.

Take care, Bob!

MamaRose said...

WOW, Michael, WHAT A POST & ALL the COMMENTS you've gotten!!!!! It's ALL WONDERFUL, I think--discussing our 'reality'/views of the Bible & the TRUTHS in it is WHAT we're SUPPOSED to be DOING!!!!

Personally, I LOVED your "MUD"!!!!
And, would LOVE to hear/read more of your interpretations of other verses!!!!!!!!!

For, Bob, specifically, BLESS YOUR HEART, I feel you are STILL STRUGGLING in your Faith & that's a GOOD THING, even though you may not FEEL that way, right now!!!!!

Besides knowing some BASIC things about our God--that HE LOVES US, IS ALWAYS 'WITH' US & SENT JESUS, HIS ONLY SON, TO EARTH TO LIVE PERFECTLY & DIE FOR US, SO WE CAN BE SAVED--there are many discussions to be had about 'other' things--like Anger.

To get the MOST out of these verses in Eph., I believe it's REALLY GOOD to go BACK to the ORIGINAL language it was written in--BUT, MY FAITH goes so far as to BELIEVE that OUR GOD is GREAT ENOUGH to not only 'deliver' HIS TRUTH the FIRST time, but also, in MOST of the later translations--but, it IS UP TO US to discern that!!!!! BY STUDYING!!!!!

And, the 'thing' about going to church--even though we've missed some Sunday services this Fall--going to Chiefs games--GOD WANTS & really DEMANDS that we 'WORSHIP HIM'--in fact, that's WHAT we're going to be doing, all of ETERNITY IN HEAVEN--WORSHIPPING HIM!!!!!!!!

And, of course, we can do that LOTS of ways & in LOTS of 'places', but he DOES want us 'NOT TO QUIT' meeting together--as the habit of some were, back in Jesus's day, even--well, I can't FIND that verse right now--but, will keep looking!!!!!

GOD KNOWS that besides meeting together to WORSHIP HIM that we WILL RECEIVE other blessings--from all of us BEING TOGETHER--that's when we will find out who is sick, physically or spiritually, and needs OUR HELP!!!!! And, we are ALWAYS ENCOURAGED, OURSELVES!!!!!

And, we ARE to COME TOGETHER to 'break bread'/partake of the Lord's Supper & REMEMBER HIM until he COMES BACK--Acts 20:7.

And, also, from the sermon & Bible Class, we WILL LEARN MORE from HIS WORD & be comforted & be more able to SPREAD HIS TRUTH to others!!!!!
AND, even be better 'qualified' to RAISE OUR OWN CHILDREN!!!! IN HIM!

I've READ so much today, in this post & the comments, that I'm sure MORE things will 'come to mind' later--THAT/THIS IS WONDERFUL--THANK YOU, MICHAEL for getting us ALL to THINK MORE about God's Word & HOW we SHOULD APPLY IT to our every day lives!!!!!!!!!

One thing's for sure--there is WAY TOO MUCH ANGER in our WORLD TODAY!! And, the 'answers' are LOVE & FORGIVENESS & 'LETTING GO'!!


MamaRose said...

HEBREWS 10:25--Larry 'found' that verse I was looking for, for me!!!

Bold Grace said...

bob barbanes wrote:
My shame is that I don't visit His house more often.

have you left your body?! hahaha! No I know you have not. You body is His House He is in you! You have no need to visit some place "out there" only look in the mirror and know that He is well pleased with you. And you are His reflection


Bold Grace said...

mamarose wrote:
For, Bob, specifically, BLESS YOUR HEART, I feel you are STILL STRUGGLING in your Faith & that's a GOOD THING.

Yes it is! Only the part where we would most likely disagree mamarose is that I believe that bob, you, me and all people must come to the point where they quit believing in their own faith and belief. It is when we give up our faith that we then have room to find HIS Faith! He Jesus was The Author and Finisher of the requirement for Faith. An individuals faith is of NO IMPORTANCE as it relates to Redemption of the Spirit. Jesus did a complete work of bringing ALL of mankind into Righteousness the same as the work of The First Adam took ALL into unrighteousness. Paul wrote as much in one of his writings.
My prayer for all of Christianity and religions of all types is that they would come to the END OF THEIR BELIEFS AND FAITH! It is at the point of giving up your faith that you then discover faith and it is not of yourself


LisaMarie said...

this post was really helpful to me. thanks a lot.

Redlefty said...

You're very welcome, LisaMarie! Hope to see you around more often.

Your comment has encouraged me to write some similar posts again regarding bible interpretation.