The Bible: divinely inspired, humanly written – but how read?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel reading from the lectionary tonight has been from John 12. The last part of that reading was itself a quote from another book in the Bible – Isaiah 6:10:

And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’

This is one of those Bible verses that seems troublesome. The reading from Isaiah that Jesus chose to quote as he spoke to the crowd that day referred to God blinding the eyes and hardening the hearts of people so that they might not understand. Why would Jesus have said such things? Surely, Jesus’ very incarnation had been an indication of God’s intention that humanity would both see and understand.  Yet here, Jesus reminded people that God had, in Isaiah, stated his intention of preventing seeing and understanding of the divine. While the other verses from our readings tonight would have made easier topics to preach on, I feel I can’t walk away from this knotty verse and must deal with it first before perhaps going to the other more amiable verses.

We can and often do choose to read the Bible as we want to read it; and so, when we come across such knotty verses as this, we may choose to elide them by ignoring them or glide over them by saying something like: ‘well it might say that but it doesn’t really mean that.’ The problem is that this verse, according to John had Jesus quoting from Isaiah about God blinding the eyes and hardening the hearts of the people so they might not understand. These are dramatic and quite specific words, we cannot simply skip past them by ignoring them or pretending they were never said – therefore we need to seek some understanding as to why, according to John’s report, Jesus had chosen to say these words that seemed so contradictory to other things he had said. In one of his own letters, John himself had admitted to such a contradiction when he wrote in 1 John:

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. [1 John 5:20]

A standard procedure when we come to knotty and contradictory verses is to go back to the original language used to see if the translation has been the cause of the problem. In the case of this problematic verse, we have two original languages to consider. First, the Greek in which John’s gospel was written and secondly the Hebrew in which Isaiah was originally written. In following this line of enquiry I went to the Jewish Annotated New Testament which, as its title implies, is a version prepared by Jewish scholars and theologians. One of the reasons they prepared this version of the New Testament was to enable new understandings of scriptural text since, in the words of its editors:

Jews and Christians still misunderstand many of each other’s texts and traditions. [pxi]

In relation to John 12:40, this is what the relevant footnote had to say:

In the original the … quotation is in the imperative (‘make … blind’, ‘harden … heart’) [p183]

This tells us that John had indeed recorded what we now read; namely that Jesus had used words that quite clearly said that God had indeed put impediments in the way of people’s understanding; he had made them blind and hardened their hearts. There has been no mistranslation with the result that, as contemporary readers, we are still left with a knotty verse.

So let’s turn to another standard procedure at such times, namely to check how other gospel writers might have recorded these questionable words of Jesus. In the case of this verse from John, there was one other recording of what Jesus had said to the crowd that day; it appeared in Matthew 13:15. Here we read:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

This version gives us quite a different feeling. According to Matthew, it was the people who had closed their eyes, calloused their hearts and stopped their ears, not God. To our ears, this is a much more comfortable rendition; but has it been the subject of softening during mistranslation into English? Should the verse have spoken with the same blunt harshness of God-imposed blindness and hardness that John had written? The answer it turns out is ‘no’. This is the case because in the time of Jesus and the apostles, there were actually two versions of the Hebrew Bible – one written in Hebrew and one written in the Greek of the time. The former is known as the Tanakh and the latter version as the Septuagint. This latter version was first compiled in about the third century before Christ, apparently by 72 scholars, hence its name. The audience sought by its original compilers was as much Jewish as that of the much older Hebrew language version. The reality was that the centuries long dispersion of Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond had seen many in those communities becoming linguistically acclimatised by adopting the prevailing lingua franca – Greek – and losing, as a result, their proficiency in Hebrew. Thus the Tanakh had become inaccessible to many Jews, a problem the Septuagint sought to overcome.

By way of proof about the two groups, in Acts 6:1 we read not only that they existed but that there were also some tensions between them:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews …

At this point, we need to recall that, unlike the other gospels, Matthew directed his gospel primarily to the Jewish community in all its breadth – Greek-speaking as much as Hebrew-speaking. So had his recording of Jesus’ reciting of Isaiah 6:10 come from the Hebrew language Tanakh or from the Greek language Septuagint? And would it have mattered anyway whichever version it had come from … surely they must both have given the same message regardless of language?

Not necessarily, these two versions of the Hebrew Bible, while they might have been the same in  fundamental theology, were not identical in every detail. For a start there are more books in the Septuagint than in the original (51 vs 39, which gave rise incidentally to the Apocrypha which contains the books left out of the Tanakh but contained in the Septuagint). And then there were some minor differences. By way of example, quiz nights sometimes ask whether there are any books in the Bible which make no reference to God. The answer it turns out would do Schrödinger proud – for it is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In the Hebrew language version of the Book of Esther, God was not specifically mentioned; but in the Septuagint version he was mentioned fifteen times.

So, did the two versions have alternative treatments of Isaiah 6:10, and might that explain the difference between John’s version and Matthew’s? The website notes that the was a difference between the two versions with the Hebrew version written in the imperative sense and the Septuagint in the indicative. In the other words the former had a commandment element – God had commanded thus; whilst the latter simply indicated a status, a condition of circumstance. In the first God had hardened their hearts, in the second their hearts had become hardened by the way they lived. In the printed version of this sermon I have appended at the end literal translations of each version. Suffice to say for the moment that Matthew’s record clearly echoed the Septuagint version and not the Tanakh.

What should we make of the differences in the versions recorded by John and Matthew? Do they invalidate the divine authority of the Bible? The Jewish atheist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, in his most recent book “21 Lessons for the C21”, has made this comment:

To the best of our scientific knowledge, all … sacred texts were written by imaginative Homo Sapiens. They are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures. [p198]

Now while I have no problem accepting that the Bible was written by human beings, I totally reject that such writing was simply the product of fertile human imagination. I hope the experience of Bible reading has been the same for you as it has been for me, namely that years of regular reading and study of the Bible has reinforced my view as to its divine inspiration. There is a spectacular holism to the Bible that, in its entirety, provides an ineffable sense of the divine voice of God echoing through that totality. More, the Bible, as Living Word, speaks to me with fresh inspiration every time I read it.

I speak of the Bible as a whole; that is why there are risks in excerpting things we don’t like from it or only focussing on those verses which speak sweetly to our sensibilities. All the components are important, but as part of the whole, not just in isolation. If we can accept this proposition, then we can understand that different writers may bring their own individual biases or perspectives without compromising the divine inspiration of the whole. Our task is to understand that whole not only through but also in spite of those biases and perspectives.

In relation to how John and Matthew saw the same words of Jesus, let us consider the different perspectives of each in writing what they wrote. The Biblical canon contains not only the gospel of John but also three letters and the book of Revelation written by him. Reading all of these, especially Revelation, gives us a clear indication that John had an apocalyptic view of the world; he saw things in black and white and very much heard messages of judgement that would be good for some and bad for others depending on whether they had listened to Jesus or not.

Matthew, on the other hand, had a universalist approach that more actively sought to bring everyone into the Kingdom rather than anticipating the exclusion of some. Listen to his report of the Great Commission in his concluding chapter:

Therefore go to make disciples of all nations [Matt 28:19]

There is judgment in Matthew, but his climax was compassionate universalism; in John there was compassion but his climax was judgmental exclusivism.

Considered in the wholeness of the Bible, both approaches achieved their validity. This raises the question about how we ourselves read the Bible? Do we seek its wholeness or do we stay with its components – our favourite verses or books? If we take a selective approach – frequenting our favourites and ignoring our dislikes, we have distorted the power of the literal word in the Bible; more importantly we have excluded the power of the Holy Spirit in our reading.

The Bible should not be read literally but prayerfully through the power of the Holy Spirit. Were that not so, the Holy Trinity would be: Father, Son and Bible. But it is not that – we know it is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we think of the Holy Spirit in our lives, what role do we attribute to it? Something comfortable? We do after all sometimes hear it referred to as the Holy Comforter. But that does not accord much power to it does it? When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost it came with power not as the equivalent of Linus’ blanket in the cartoon Peanuts. In Acts 2 we read:

The Spirit enabled them. [2:4b]

So as we come to the Bible, do we let the Holy Spirit enable us in our reading, asking what messages we should draw from it? Do we let it enable us to read it with inspired eyes rather than mortal ones?

In our Old Testament reading this evening from Deuteronomy we heard God say to Moses:

I have let you see it with your eyes. [34:4b]

This was no simple human sight that God gave Moses – yes, he could indeed physically see the land the other side of Jordan that lay spread out below Mount Nebo. However, the seeing that God gave Moses on that day was to see through inspired eyes the Promised Land that lay ahead, something altogether different.

Now it is time to return to our gospel reading from tonight and look at the earlier verses, not just the knotty one. Listen in particular to these words that Jesus spoke that day:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. [12:32]

A promise not to stop people understanding but to draw all to him. A few verses later we heard him saying:

Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of the light. [12:35b-36a]

All this helped me read the knotty verse anew with one phrase standing out as a result:

Nor understand with their hearts. [12:40b]

I now heard ‘nor understand with their own hearts’. God does not stop us understanding through the power of his Holy Spirit, just through our own partial sight and comprehension. Our own eyes will keep us in the dark but seeing with the power of the Holy Spirit will take us into the light.

A literal translation into English of the Hebrew language version reads:

Make the heart of the people fat and make their ears heavy and their eyes shut, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their eyes and understand with their hearts and convert and be healed.

While the Septuagint version reads:

Was thickened for the heart of this people and they heard heavily with their ears and with closed eyelids, lest at any time they should behold with their eyes and their ears should hear and their heart perceive and they should turn and I shall heal them.