Friday Facts: Lectionary A – First Sunday in Lent

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 4.1

Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the spirit in order to be tempted by the devil.

Today’s reading offers a good opportunity to talk about the difference between a concordance and a synoptic word study.

A concordance word study, as I’ve done several times in Paul’s epistles (see here or here), is a study that takes a particular word and looks at its use over a body of text. That body can be as small as a single book, e.g. studying the use of the word υδωρ [water] in the gospel of John. Or it can be slightly larger, e.g. studying the use of the word πιστις [faith] in the epistles of Paul. Or it can extend to an entire testament, or with a little translational work, it could encompass the entire Bible. The goal of a concordance study is to examine how a word is used over a variety of different circumstances in order to draw out its meaning.

On the other hand, a synoptic study does the opposite. Rather than looking for parallels or contradictions in usage of a particular word, a synoptic study looks at the different ways in which different authors talk about the same story. Because a synoptic study requires authors to report on the same story, the opportunity to conduct them is much more limited than for concordance studies. In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles provide one such opportunity. In the New Testament, the first three gospels provide the same opportunity, and because of that have earned the collective title of Synoptics.

But how exactly does a Synoptic study work? Matthew 4.1 provides a good example. The Greek word πειρασθῆναι, often translated “tempted,” can also mean “tested” or “tried.” And in the context of Jesus’ contest with the devil, either seems appropriate. But a synoptic study looking at the parallel passage in Mark helps to weight the translation of Matthew towards “tempted.”

Looking at the parallel passage, we see that Mark describes Jesus as being ἐκβαλλει [thrown out] into the wilderness, a word often associated in Mark with demonic exorcism. Mark’s uses of the word sets up Jesus’ encounter with the devil as a contest like the other exorcisms, and so translators are justified in rendering πειραζόμενος as tested. However, in Matthew, the word is not ἐκβαλλει. It is ἀνήχθη, a much more sedate verb choice. It means to “to lead,” and the thus sets up a less confrontational, but perhaps more tempting encounter between Jesus and the devil. Thus, by comparing the two passages, we can mark that Matthew sees the event in a different light than his fellow evangelist, and we can choose “tempt” as our translation for πειρασθῆναι.

Friday Facts: Christmas Edition!

Friday Facts is a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Luke 2.7

And she gave birth to her son, her firstborn, and she swaddled him and she laid him down in a feeding-trough, because there was not a place for them in the guest room.

Because this Sunday is Christmas, and we all have many things to do, I’ll try to keep it short today. I like concordance studies, i.e. looking up a word in the Bible and seeing where else in the Bible it appears. They certainly can be done in English, but I appreciate them most in Greek because they often throw light on nuances of translation. The Christmas story is a great example, because the translation of one word in the text changes our idea of what’s actually going on. That word is καταλύματι, and it comes at the end of verse 7. For those of us who do the majority of our reading from translations heavily influenced by the King James Version (the NRSV included), the standard rendering of καταλύματι has been “inn.” And this translation conjures up images of “No Vacancy” signs, callous inn-keepers turning the young couple away, and a remarkable lack of hospitality on the part of the city of Bethlehem.

Image my surprise when I looked up where else καταλύματι occurs in Luke and found it in Luke 22.10-12: And [Jesus] said to them, “Behold, when you go into the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house into which he goes. And you will say to the master of the house, ‘Our teacher says to you, ‘Where is the κατάλυμα where I can eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And that one will show you a large, furnished upstairs room. Prepare there.” Here, the κατάλυμα is clearly not an “inn,” but a specific room inside of a house. Moreover, Luke has another word he uses when he clearly means ‘inn.’ In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes “And going to him, he bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine [on them]. And having placed the man on his own donkey, he led him into an inn (Gk. πανδοχεῖον).”

So what’s going on here? It seems that instead of looking for a Motel 6, Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives in Bethlehem. And it just so happened that their house was stuffed with all the relatives who had arrived in town for the census. Because there was no room in the upstairs guest bedroom, Mary and Joseph had to stay in another room in the house, which, as was common in ancient Palestine, was the room that also housed the animals.

Does this radically change the Christmas story? No. The central fact is the same: Our Lord was born into humble circumstances in the midst of beasts of burden. But, Jesus was also born into a house overwhelmed by out-of-town relatives, which just goes to show that He really does know all of our hopes and cares. Merry Christmas indeed!