Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Left Behind" and the problem with targums

Rev 22:18-19 NASB
(18) I testify to everyone who hears the words of the
prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues
which are written in this book;
(19) and if anyone takes away from the words
of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life
and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

This would chill me to the bone if I were an author of the "Left Behind" series. Considering the fact that those authors certainly know this verse, I must conclude that they don't consider their several-volume expansive interpretation of Revelation, Thessalonians, Daniel and Ezekiel to be an addition or subtraction to the prophecy entrusted to John and thence to us. This despite the fact that they know, or should know, that for millions of people their books, and the movies, are the only interpretation of these texts they are likely to hear. The very title of the series, "Left Behind," is a substantial addition to the account of the so-called Rapture in the letters to Thessalonica, neither of which speak of anyone being left behind at Jesus' second coming, nor shows any concern at all to describe what, exactly, happens to the unsaved at that event. They go on to add volumes of speculative detail to events that are described apocalyptically and poetically in the text delivered to us through the Apostle.

The subtraction effected by the "Left Behind" series is more subtle but even more real: the narrowing of the imagination of God's people to this single elaborate account of the end times. I have taught the Revelation to adults several times over the last years, and believe me that this series has constricted their view of the future deeply and definitively. When they read Revelation, they do not wonder what it means, they do not engage their faculties of understanding of poetry and metaphor. No, they already know what it means. They've seen it at the movies.

But here I am most interested in the question, why does God find it necessary to explicitly prohibit the addition or subtraction of words to or from his revelation? And what does he mean by addition and subtraction?

Perhaps at one level God here prohibits the addition of fake text, of additional chapters or episodes. This is, no doubt, quite important. We can't have men or women adding their own uninspired text to the body of scripture and passing it off as inspired. Why not? This may seem like a silly question but, really, why not? Is it not because we need to preserve the ability to trace the expressed thoughts back to God, who is authoritative and sovereign, or to man, who is not?

What about expansive interpretations? Do they constitute additions in the sense proscribed?

This is a more difficult question, but we can at least begin with the need to preserve the distinguishability between God's words and the interpreter's ideas. This is admittedly not always a bright, clean line. All translation involves interpretation, which of course is why we generally require our preachers to read the original languages. Idioms, especially, require interpretation from one language or culture to another. Nevertheless, translation does not generally or frequently require expansion to be faithful to the original, and a translator seeks to match form with form, content with content, and connotation with connotation. There is a general one-to-one correspondence, and in this sense a translation is not inherently an expansion.

In "Colossians Remixed," Walsh and Keesmaat offer an expansive interpretation that they consider to be a "targum" of Colossians. They explain on page 38 that this is a form of interpretation arising during the Jewish diaspora, in which the rabbis did not simply translate the text, but "would update the text, apply it to the changing context, and put it into contemporary idiom." An accompanying footnote explains that a targum "could be commentary as well as translation, and impose a comprehensive interpretation on the original Hebrew." (p. 41) It is these latter aspects that may cause targa to fall afoul of the "no additions" mandate, in my opinion.

The fundamental problem that I believe underlies God's warning is that additions are subtractions. When one "imposes" such a "comprehensive interpretation" upon the text, it certainly can and often does exclude other appropriate interpretations that the reader, especially the Spirit-enlightened reader, might otherwise bring to it. It dominates and directs the imagination. It does so, I would submit, in proportion as it is an expansion; the more extensive the examples and cultural specificities supplied by the interpreter, the more restrictive is the targum to the reader's own mind.

Writers of targums (targa?) might object that the reader knows that their targum is merely an interpretation and hence not authoritative. Perhaps. I suspect the authors of "Left Behind" offer the same defense. What, in my opinion, makes them more pernicious than straightforward commentary is that they take the same form as the underlying scripture, and thereby enter the reader's mind by the same door as the scriptures would, and gain status thereby, so to speak. I think this is dangerous ground for any teacher to tread upon.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, many people essentially consider Left Behind infallible. They don't come close to questioning its accuracy, but rather simply accept as true, probably for several reasons: 1) it's Christian so it must be right, 2) it's something Christian being marketed to unbelievers, which makes it even better, and 3) many Christians simply don't read their Bibles and they don't know how to even go about testing the legitimacy of an interpretation.

    Most American Christians do not even realize that there are alternative interpretations out there. Indeed, when I first heard Dain's Kulp interpration and discovered that the "Left Behind" interpretation was NOT the only interpretation, I was both shocked and frankly, I was scared and frightened!

    Incidentally, I found it most interesting the other day when my Biblical Literature professor was covering Revelations in class. He is very passionate about the idea that Revelation was written as encouragement for SUFFERING Christians, with the intention to encourage them in perseverance, mainly through providing hope for victory in the end. Modern examples include the persecuted Church in China, Indonesia, other Muslim countries, and the previous Soviet Union. These are Christians who could easily be on the verge of denying their faith because they are facing such severe persecution and hardship. The rapture, however, is a largely extra-biblical, non-traditional interpretation for comfortable Christians, such as in America, who don't want to face the idea that someday they may have to suffer for their faith. Subsequently, the doctrine of the rapture is formulated, providing "hope" for these comfortable Christians that they will escape the hard life, floating on clouds with Jesus while the rest of the foolish, blind world is suffering in turmoil! Somehow, Revelations doesn't convey any "escape" for Christians. Their faith is their only hope (but what a glorious hope we have, nevertheless!) It's quite lamentable and very much a tragedy that we might be providing false hope to truly suffering Christians, awaiting to be "raptured" out of their hardships....

    My prof's comments afterwords were quite interesting as well. I emailed him and extended my gratitude of him sharing his thoughts. It is nice to hear such an interpretation for someone who is not Reformed. Growing up in dispensational Hershey Free, and even in dispensational evangelicalism in America, it can feel like the Reformed circle is more of a non-orthodox cult than a true form of Christianity. My prof's email back was quite interesting and encouraging:

    "There are lots of Christians--including the majority of New Testament scholars, in my experience--who do not believe in a Rapture. But you are right that in America, Evangelical churches have generally come to be dominated by this view. Reformed believers are most often the alternate voice heard because the Reformed churches value scholarship, and hence there are lots of commentaries, historical studies, etc. by Reformed scholars (who are also faithful to historic Christianity and to scripture)."