Pheidippides was a Wimp: Translating the 'Headline News' of the Gospel
- Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Jess gave me a look like, What kind of softball question is that? “The birth of Jesus, of course,” she said.
“Wrong,” I said with a smile. “It’s the official birth announcement of Octavian — otherwise known as Caesar Augustus — written almost six decades before the birth of Christ.”
I showed them the page and they scoured it, looking for an error, a footnote, anything that might lessen the confusion. Finally, Phil looked up. “But it says savior.”
“Which, in ancient times, meant about the same thing as victor,” I said. “You probably know that when a king or a general in those days captured a city or defeated an enemy at war, it was his right to burn the city to the ground and kill everyone in it. A quick survey of the Old Testament shows that such things happened with absolutely numbing regularity. But as victor, he could also decide to spare the city and its inhabitants, which made him their savior. In other words, he kept them from a death they deserved.”
“Exactly,” said Jess. “Which was why people had to know about Jesus. They knew they needed to be saved from the consequences of their sins.”
“Did they?” I sat down at the table again. “Let’s think about this. Jesus conducted a roving ministry, walking around Palestine — a Jewish state occupied by a foreign power. The final destruction of the Temple had not yet taken place. In fact, Herod the Great — the same Herod who tried to hunt down Jesus when he was an infant, and the father of the Herod who was ruling when Jesus was crucified — had rebuilt the Temple as a means of pacifying the Jews to make them more accepting of their Roman rulers. So, if you had been in an argument with your neighbor, or you hadn’t met with your minyan, your synagogue leaders, for a few days, you could set things right by going into the Temple and making a donation or offering a sacrifice.”
I turned to Phil. “What would you say if I told you I had a great device to keep the elephants off your lawn. Would you be interested in one?”
“I’d say I don’t have a problem with elephants on my lawn.”
“That’s right. And a Jew in the first century would have given a similar reply to someone who said, ‘I’ve got the remedy for your sins.’ Jews of this period didn’t see themselves as sinful. They were doing a pretty good job of living by the rules; and when they broke one, they could offer a sacrifice at the Temple. That’s why Jesus and the disciples didn’t lead with the salvation story, as in ‘This is how you get to heaven.’ They knew they wouldn’t find any takers.”
“But Jesus died for our sins!” Phil insisted.
“He did,” I agreed. “But stay with me for a second.” I looked at Phil and Jess and asked, “Is slavery wrong?”
“Would you agree that it’s a sin?”
They nodded again.
“So the plantation owners of the antebellum American South — were they sinners?”
“Sure,” Phil said.
“Then, in that case, every Union soldier who perished during the Civil War died for slave owners’ sins. Does that make all those soldiers the same as Jesus?”
“Of course not!” Jess realized she had almost shouted her reply, and added, “Sorry.”
“Jesus was not the only Jew to die on a tree in those days,” I said. “Thousands did. It was the most common means of executing people who were seen as enemies of the Roman state — non-Romans, at least. So, although his death gained some notoriety, it didn’t make him unique. And even though John 3:16 makes it clear that Jesus died to create a pathway to God, that isn’t the good news we’re talking about when we read the New Testament. In fact, I’m not even sure ‘good news’ works as a translation in this day and age. It’s more of a ‘breaking story’ or ‘headline news.’”
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