Washington, D.C.: ‘Topping Out’ the Museum of the Bible

In August 2016, I received an invitation to go to the “Topping Out” event at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C. I have known about the MOTB for a long time—even before D.C. was the place finally chosen for its location. But I had no idea what a ‘topping out’ event was.

The MOTB will be the world’s largest privately-owned Bible museum. Sponsored primarily by the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame, it is intended to be a place where people of all faiths—and those of no faith at all—can engage with the Bible. The goal is to be non-sectarian but intentionally educational. The Bible has had far greater impact on human history than any other book ever written. Yet Biblical illiteracy is escalating at an astonishing pace and is even approaching the illiteracy levels before the King James Bible was published four hundred years ago. This museum in this location is strategic for the nations of the world.

I was of course very pleased to receive the invitation to this event; and because it was an all-expense-paid trip (thank you, Steve Green!) I was able to accept.

Three sites were originally considered for the museum: New York, Dallas, and Washington. As much as I would have loved to see it in Dallas, I knew that D.C. was a far more strategic location—even more strategic than NYC. The MOTB is just a few blocks from the US Capitol, and from its top floor one can see the Capitol dome as well as the Washington Monument.

The Greens have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ancient and medieval treasures. The collection now boasts more than 40,000 artifacts that are relevant to the biblical world.

On September 13, 2016 (the 14th anniversary of the founding of CSNTM [www.csntm.org], by the way), over one hundred guests were bussed to the MOTB from the Washington Hilton (the same hotel where President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley 35 years ago). Along with the 500 construction workers at the site, we ate lunch on the top floor and listened to presentations by several notables, including former mayor of Washington, Tony Williams. And I learned that ‘topping out’ meant the installation of the last steel beam in a building. That beam arrived from Germany and was installed just hours before our lunch.

The structure is in place; now to finish the task. The MOTB is scheduled to open in late November, 2017. In our tour of the building we learned that it weighs in at 430,000 square feet, is eight stories tall (two below ground), and is oozing with technological wizardry. Carey Summers, president of the MOTB, announced at lunch that it will be the most technologically-advanced museum in the world. This is not your father’s museum. Stodgy is definitely not an adjective to describe it!

I must admit, however, that I was a little concerned that the museum might have a cheesy feel to it, kind of like a Christian Disneyland. I’ve seen too many Christian museums that are of this sort. But the impression I got from the speakers, the tour, and the videos on each floor showing how the museum will finish out obliterated that concern. Yes, this museum will be technologically advanced, and yes, it will be accessible and interesting to people of all ages. But it will not be boring or cheesy. It’s a fine balance to achieve; the MOTB is on track to do it.

As you enter the museum, you will be greeted by two massive brass (?) doors—one weighing 8 tons, the other, 12 tons—both with biblical text on them. Inside, the vaulted ceiling will light up by replicating the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as well as a number of other famous paintings, murals, and scenes. The ceiling will morph through these displays of art via tens of thousands of LED lights.

As you ascend the stairs (or take the lift), you will see large exhibits from other museums—including the Vatican and the Israel Antiquity Authority (the latter has never had an exhibit of their artifacts outside of Israel). One floor will show the history of translation, with an impressive wall that lists all the regions/languages of the world that have the full Bible, parts of the Bible, or none of the Bible in their own language. It will be an instant visual display of the past accomplishments and remaining tasks of Bible translators. Another will be a library for studying ancient documents. A stunning, 400-seat theater will be used for a variety of events. Another floor will be a display room, showing visitors how manuscripts are photographed, and how artifacts are preserved. There will even be sections addressing the Bible’s impact on justice, on world history, and on the founding principles of the United States.

The cost of the museum (including various projects related to it throughout the world), will be an astounding one billion dollars! The Green family has put in half of this money; the rest is coming from other donors. Most of those who came to the topping out event were potential major donors. But those of us who are not in that league can still make a contribution: a ‘million name’ wall will list all donors who contribute any amount. It will be a powerful visual reminder that the Bible is a book of great import. Here’s the link: https://www.museumofthebible.org/onemillionnames. I plan on making a donation for each member of my family—including grandchildren. (Please don’t tell them; it’s a Christmas present!). There’s plenty of room for you to join and display to the world that you, too, honor the Bible and recognize its role in world history.

Here’s the link to the MOTB website: https://www.museumofthebible.org. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1pE-GIV0Fo to see a “360º” look at the MOTB (film produced by CV Global). And here’s the “Extended Fly-Through” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yu-c6RJW9E.



Ad fontes, ad futura

HBU_logo2006-PMS287 [Converted]

On February 25–27, 2016, Houston Baptist University will be hosting a conference with the clever title, “Ad fontes, ad futura: Erasmus’ Bible and the Impact of Scripture.” This is HBU’s annual theology conference. The theme is related to the quincentennial of the publication of Desiderius Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum Omne, which made its appearance on March 1, 1516. The timing of this conference couldn’t be better.

Herman Selderhuis, Craig A. Evans, Timothy George, and I will be delivering keynote addresses. Robert D. Marcello and Stratton Ladewig will be representing the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (csntm.org) at the conference, each giving a lecture. Rob’s paper is entitled “Significant Contributions to the Text of the New Testament and Early Church from the National Library of Greece,” while Stratton’s is “New Images Bring Greater Clarity: Examples of Improved Textual Identity in CSNTM’s 𝔓45 images.” John Soden and Greg Barnhill, two former students of mine, will also be giving lectures. Dan Pfeiffer, a current PhD student at Dallas Seminary, will be giving a lecture based on his work in Advanced New Testament Textual Criticism, a course he took from me last semester. Others delivering papers include Stanley Helton, Jeff Cate, Jeffrey Riddle, and David Ritsema. It looks like it will be a most stimulating conference! See the webpage on this event here.

Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.

Pastor Osteen and Christian Narcissism: Symptom of a Larger Problem

Posted on August 27, 2014 on Youtube was an upbeat little clip from Pastor Osteen in Houston. But not the pastor you are probably thinking of. No, this is not Joel Osteen but his wife and co-pastor, Victoria.

She said with a big smile on her face and with husband Joel standing next to her in nodding approval:

“When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning, just do good—for your own self. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy.

When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really! You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy—Amen? [calling to the crowd for a positive response]”

Lakewood Church has a congregation of 45,000, making it the largest church in America. It is broadly evangelical in doctrine. Largely preaching a prosperity gospel—a favorite of some charismatic groups—they have grown the church fivefold since Joel took over from his father as pastor. The Osteens have been criticized for a number of things, not the least of which is being soft on sin and twisting the gospel.

Now, some of the most blatant narcissistic blather ever to come from a pulpit can also be laid at their feet. Not only narcissistic, but also blasphemous. One has to wonder how a megachurch in the buckle of the Bible belt can go on and on without the congregants waking up and smelling what’s being shoveled in their direction. If Lakewood Church is any indication of the biblical literacy, genuine devotion to Christ, and fellowship of the saints of the American evangelical church, we are in serious trouble. I know good people—rock-solid believers—in Houston. In fact, I would say that the biblical literacy in Texas is perhaps higher than any other state in the Union. But perhaps I am running in circles that are under the radar. I pray that that is not the case.

At the same time, I would have to say that in my travels throughout North America, speaking in churches everywhere, biblical illiteracy seems to be virtually at an all-time high. And a desire to please God at all costs is a pipe dream—so few Christians even think in such categories! The evangelical church in America needs corporate self-reflection and corporate repentance. How we treat one another, how we honor God, what our understanding of and commitment to the gospel is, and how we measure true success all need a serious overhaul. The root problem seems to be twofold: the marginalization of the word of God and the ‘buddyization’ of Jesus Christ. The scriptures have become irrelevant and the Lord of glory is now immanent but not transcendent in our hearts.

What can we do to fix the problem? A number of things: get into the Word, especially Romans and the Psalms; exalt Jesus Christ in our own hearts and lives and in the midst of others; get outside our comfort zones of common ethnicity, political correctness, and extreme narcissism; get outside our comfort zone of hiding our sins and learn to confess to one another and the Lord; learn about the magnificence of our God; and live to please him.

Some suggested reading:

  1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God
  2. Samuel Storms, The Grandeur of God
  3. D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
  4. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
  5. Jared C. Wilson, Romans: A 12-Week Study
  6. Bruce Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship