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30 July 2012

Good Deeds, Righteousness, or Alms?

A few days ago I talked about the differences in a few English Bible translations. Not the standard kind of "thee" versus "you" differences, and not the bigger, deep theological sorts of differences. Something in between, really. This post will follow up where I left off and is a little longer than usual.

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus says that we shouldn't be making a showy spectacle of ourselves as we do good stuff. We should not help people so that we'll get attention and credit for doing something good. (At the same time, we should be an example to people around us; our motivation is the key.)

In that verse the New Living Translation quotes Jesus as saying, "Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others..." The phrase "good deeds" is also used in Matthew 5:16: "Let your good deeds shine out for all to see..."

I thought it odd that Jesus would speak of exactly the same acts twice within five minutes of each other, once saying to do them publicly and next saying to do them privately, so I looked at the English Standard Version for a different perspective. Sure enough, while in 5:16 the ESV says "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works," it says in 6:1 "beware of practicing your righteousness before other people..." Must be a different Greek word(s) in the two verses, I reasoned. This proved to be correct.

In my Blue Letter Bible app for iPhone (which I tend to use more than YouVersion because it has a Greek interlinear feature), looking at the Greek text, "good works" (καλός ἔργον - kalos ergon) mentioned in 5:16 are specific works. "Kalos" means beautiful or good, and "ergon" means to work, toil, or labor. "Righteousness" (δικαιοσύνη - dikaiosunē) in 6:1 focuses more along the lines of a person's good character (equity of character or action), meaning to me that the latter was saying, "Don't try to get people to think that you're all pious and stuff. Be humble."

Good enough to give clarity the two passages. And then I looked at the King James Version.

"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them..." Zoiks! That's different. I saw no way of rendering "dikaiosunē" to mean alms or money, so I checked another interlinear Bible at Imagine my surprise when I noted that Matthew 6:1 used the Greek word "ἐλεημοσύνη" -- eleēmosunē. This means "compassionateness" (is that even a word?) or alms, as exercised toward the poor. This made Jesus' words in 6:1 have a much more focused point. He was literally talking about giving to the poor; a specific kind of work that we shouldn't trumpet so people will see us being all philanthropic and what-not.

But why the differences in the Greek text? It's easy to understand the variances in English translations, but could be a big deal if someone's using a different Greek manuscript.

Ever notice the footnotes in your Bible that say things like, "Some manuscripts add Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you."? I'll bet you have. Have you seen the footnote at Mark 16:8? "The most reliable early manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 8. The majority of manuscripts include the 'longer ending' immediately after verse 8."

Here's the tip of the iceberg: the King James Version was translated from a manuscript called Textus Receptus, meaning "the received text." Almost all modern translations rely primarily on other manuscripts, notably Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (interestingly, Sinaiticus was discovered in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai in 1844, supposedly in a wastebasket about to be burned to help heat the monestary). The latter two, dating to about the 4th century A.D., are older than the most recent copies of Textus Receptus by a few hundred years, so one line of reasoning says these must, then, be more accurate manuscripts. But not so fast! You'll find that many phrases from Textus Receptus that are omitted in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are quoted by sources within 50 years of Jesus' resurrection.

Here we have the source of a debate that has remained strong (heck, it's raged) for several hundred years now, though it is much less visible than many other debates in the Church.

My point is not to fan the flames of that debate. I'm not saying that the KJV, translated in 1611, is superior to modern translations. I'm not even arguing for one ancient manuscript over another. What I'm saying is that we live in a fantastically wonderful time in history. Do you realize the breadth of ancient study materials available to the average person? How on earth could we squander these things? If we truly believe that we have in our possession a divine book that the Creator of the universe wrote/breathed so that we can know Him and know more about Him, why in the universe do we leave it sitting on the table, on a shelf, in a car floorboard, or in a drawer?

Why don't we take advantage of the amazing resources at our fingertips? Here are just a handful of online tools that you need to be taking advantage of:

  • The Blue Letter Bible -- Great site. The mobile app is only for iPad, iPod, and iPhone.
  • E-Sword -- A program rather than an online tool, and an absolute must-download. Not available in a mobile version.
  • -- What Chick-Fil-A is to southern Baptist churches, BibleGateway is to Christian internet users.
  • Online Interlinear Hebrew Old Testament -- Awesome but not optimized for mobile devices. Search results are in PDF files.
  • Online Interlinear Greek New Testament -- Again, awesome but not optimized for mobile devices. Search results are in PDF files.
  • -- This site comes highly recommended by many friends, but I haven't gotten too much mileage out of it. Looks good but a little cluttered.
  • Interlinear Bible -- Guess what this is.

    Here are some links that will help you research the differences between the various ancient manuscript sources for the Bible. You'll find that the debate can be quite heated. Most who embrace the KJV-only view have no room to tolerate anyone who disagrees. In their defense, this is the Word of God that we are discussing; not Beowulf.

  • -- What are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus?
  • Textus Receptus
  • Codex Sinaiticus
  • Codex Vaticanus
  • NLT Frequently Asked Questions
  • KJV Today
  • Codex Sinaiticus: It Is Old But Is It The Best?


    Anonymous said...

    Exactlt Right. KJV is from one stream and most all others are from the Wescott Hort Text. I use only the KJV. Things that are different are not the same.

    Dean Lusk said...

    It is worth stating that modern translations draw on the Textus Receptus, not just the Westcott-Hort text. I'm obviously not trying to dissuade you from using only the KJV, Anonymous. Just wanted to mention that.

    Christy said...

    I've recently become a bit perturbed about the different translations more so than ever before. One of the verses that I memorized early on is "Study to shew thyself approved unto God..." (2 Tim 2:15). It turns out NOT to mean "book study" like I always believed. Rather it means to "be earnest" or "eager" to present yourself to God in a way that won't shame you. I'm just a little put off that I can't take one translation's "word" for it. However, like you said, at least we have access to so many wonderful tools. We really have no excuse for not understanding God's word. One site that I use regularly is

    Dean Lusk said...

    That's a great example of the impact of the "living language" aspect of English on translation. And it's another reason to "study." :-)

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