I love reading the Bible. I am especially fond of the Gospels. One thing that I am increasingly aware of is the need for translation to the modern world. Yes, we need it to be translated from Greek to English well but we also need to translate it culturally. There is a significant gap between the world that the text was written in and the one that we live in.
I get lots of feedback from people who think that world is exactly the same as it was 2,000 years ago (angels, demons, prophecy, etc.) and that the only difference is we that have cars and computers and alarm clocks. But they think that gender roles and scientific assumptions are not really that different.
I think that everything from physics to language to cosmology, gender, empire and culture has been effected in major and minor ways. I think that the text needs to be both translated and interpreted. It is not a 1:1 equivalent with our contemporary understanding.
I want to look at a story from the Bible to illustrate how I think we can navigate the gap, translate for our age and time, and interpret in ways that are authentic for our present reality.
My goal is to be faithful to the text while being accountable to our contemporary world. I want to find continuity with the tradition while being credible to the modern understanding.
There is a story in John 5 where Jesus heals a person who had been lame for 38 years. This man would lay beside this pool of water called Bethesda. The water in the pool was stirred from time to time and it was believed that whoever was the first person in after the water was stirred would be healed. This man was never the first one is because he had no-one to help him. Jesus seeks him out and circumvents the whole system by just telling the man to get up, pick up his mat, and walk away.
An interesting point to consider is that a footnote of explanation in most texts says that the people believed that it was an Angel that would appear from time to time and stir the water.
Today we might want to talk about the mineral content of natural springs or how the gases build up and occasionally ‘release’ and the waters are stirred. We would probably want to study how minerals & gases are most potent immediately after a stirring and thus ‘the first person in’ might gain the most benefit.
I think that it is very reasonable to interpret it that way and to translate it for the modern mind. What I don’t want to do is to discredit the thinking of the first century and to point out that it may not have been an angel at all. I don’t need to open up the can of worms to ask 1) if this used to happen – why do Angels not do this now? 2) is it possible that the Angel is still on duty and that this still happens? 3) did something happen and angels have different responsibilities now? etc. I just don’t need to go down that road.
People believed that an Angel would occasionally stir the water and imbue them with special healing powers. All I am saying is that “this is what the people believed back then”. I am not saying that we need to believe that or that they were wrong to believe that. We are just acknowledging that this was their understanding and thus they behaved in this way.
We may have a different understanding and therefor may behave in a different way.
Let me throw out an alternative interpretation: What if instead of believing that Angels are some type of pre-historical creature that exist in another realm, what if we simply understand that “Angel” is a way of saying “God at work”. We could look at the story of John 5 and interpret the stirring of the water – not as an actual character from a different realm – but simply that God was at work in the stirring of the water through the minerals and gases.
This would allow us to say that the natural gasses and minerals are (in one sense) God at work through an “agent” and that appears to us Angelic – essentially agents that do God’s work.
This allows us to read the story and – to not discredit it – to see that that something was actually happening in the story – and to believe that God was behind it.
We get to do all of this without doggedly or blindly sticking to an outdated metaphysics, antiquated cosmology or confusing worldview. We can be both authentic to the text and we can participate in our contemporary context with integrity. One need not be sacrificed for the other.
This Thursday I want to tell you the story of the mineral springs that have come to mean so much to me and how they have shaped much of my thinking on this.