Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Credibility as a teacher, take 3

I've been reading a book about prayer. Some of the points the author makes are good and needed. But there are examples of sloppy wording, or things that just don't line up with standard biblical scholarship, such that when people who are educated about the Bible (either formally in seminary or self-taught through extensive reading and study of scholarly sources) see these easy-to-avoid mistakes, it ends up with the author shooting himself in the foot when it comes to credibility. 

One of the first things I noticed in the book is a part where the author mentions how Noah and his family "had drifted in their ark for days, suspended between heaven and earth." Genesis 7:24 says that the waters had flooded the earth for 150 days. While one could take that and say they had "drifted in their ark for days," most people telling the story would say "for months" or give the large number of days mentioned in the biblical text, since simply saying "for days" would usually be interpreted by most people as anywhere from 3 or 4 days up to a couple of weeks. Past 10-15 days, one would usually move to "for weeks," One hundred fifty days is five months! Characterizing that as "for days" drastically minimizes the reality of the situation.

In a section dealing with the importance of church leaders having a core team that prays with them for God's direction and will for the church, the author talks about Aaron and Hur holding up Moses' hands while the Israelites fought the Amalekites. Writing about Aaron, the author says:

We know quite a bit about Aaron. Aaron served as the first priest in Israel's history. Aaron was a minister and, like Moses, was dedicated to full time ministry work. Aaron had long been a partner with Moses and knew him personally. He certainly understood Moses' history, as well as his struggles, frustrations, and vulnerabilities. Aaron supported Moses as a fellow minister in the work.

Of course Aaron knew Moses personally and understood his history. Aaron was Moses' brother! Also, while it is true that Aaron was the first high priest of Israel, this scene where Aaron and Hur hold up Moses' hands occurs in Exodus 17, and Aaron isn't named as high priest until Exodus 28. At this point in the narrative, Aaron had not yet "long been a partner with Moses," other than serving as Moses' mouthpiece before Pharaoh during the series of judgments from God upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian deities. Moses lived as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter the first forty years of his life, then spent forty more years in the wilderness after killing an Egyptian foreman while defending a Hebrew slave who was being mistreated. By this scene in Exodus 17, Moses and Aaron have only been back together for a couple of years at most.

Some may think I'm being nitpicky, but I take very seriously Paul's admonition to Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:15 to strive to rightly divide the word of truth. All too often preachers and teachers play fast and loose with the facts of the biblical story in order to make a point that gets people's attention. But in my estimation, that is simply not acceptable.

Later, the author addresses the passage in Mark 9 where, after Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, they find that the other disciples have not been able to cast an unclean spirit out of a man's young son. Jesus casts out the spirit, and the disciples ask Him why they had not been able to do it (even though in the past they had cast out other demons). Jesus replies that "This kind can only come out by prayer" (Mk 9:29, NIV). The ESV says. "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." The NASB1995 translates it, "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer." The King James Version reads, "This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting."

The author of the book states:

What the King James translates as "prayer and fasting" is actually a single word in the Greek. It often describes a place of prayer, a recurring discipline of prayer practiced in a particular place.

As I pointed out one of my articles concerning modern Bible translations, this passage has a textual variant in the manuscripts. The majority of Greek manuscripts say εν προσευχη και νηστεια (by prayer and fasting), while the oldest manuscripts we have access to simply say ἐν προσευχῇ (by prayer). So this author is in a sense both right and wrong. He's correct that in the critical text, there is one word (προσευχῇ). But he's in error when he says the King James Version translates this "one word" as "prayer and fasting," because the King James translators were working from the Majority Text/Textus Receptus, which has two Greek words, "prayer" and "fasting." 

First off, if this writer is going to talk about the Greek text, he should know facts like this, a summary of which can be found in the footnotes of any decent study Bible. Secondly, where is the proper education of the editors at Christian publishers in these matters? Are they simply letting claims like this go through, assuming the writer they are paying to produce a book has all his/her facts straight? If the editor is not sufficiently knowledgeable in these matters, when the author himself is not a biblical scholar with the proper credentials to back up his/her claims with cited research, the editor should have a credentialed scholar review the material for accuracy and point out any potential problems. I don't even have a terminal degree (I have only finished an MA at this point), and even I can spot these errors. 

As to the statement that the word used here "often describes a place of prayer, a recurring discipline of prayer practiced in a particular place," the Lexham Theological Wordbook in Logos Bible Software says:

The noun proseuchē is the usual Septuagint translation of the Hebrew תְּפִלָּה (tĕpillâ, “prayer”). It is related to the verb προσεύχομαι (proseuchomai, “to pray”) and is usually simply what the subject prays—i.e., the prayer or petition prayed to God (e.g., Matt 21:22; Acts 10:31). In two places in the NT, however, the proseuchē refers to a specific place of prayer (Acts 16:13, 16). (1)

So while the word can refer to a "place of prayer," I wouldn't necessarily call two occurrences of that interpretation "often." And note that both of the references to that particular usage of the word are found inside a single passage, where Paul and Silas are at Philippi. In that passage, the term refers to a place of prayer outside the city near the river, because Philippi apparently did not have enough Jewish men to constitute the quorum required to formally establish a synagogue (the synagogue being where Paul typically first went to share the gospel when arriving in a new city, since the Jews would already know the background material regarding a promised Messiah). 

Now, I realize some will object to my concerns by saying that not every book dealing with biblical issues needs to be a scholarly tome. Granted, most of my reading is more on the academic side of Christian publishing (and I honestly find that material more edifying spiritually than most popular devotional material). I'm not saying that every book about faith and the Christian life needs to be a 600-page volume where some pages have more space taken up by footnotes than by the main text (let the reader understand). But I do believe that Christian writers, no matter their level of academic training, should run things by a few trusted people who do have advanced training to make sure that what they present to the Christian reading public doesn't contradict commonly known (or easily researchable) facts about the Bible. Pastors and authors who write about the Bible are in a way representing God, and need to take seriously the weight of that responsibility, just as they should strive to do when it comes to living a life that represents Christ.

(1) Daniel DeWitt Lowery, “Prayer,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).


  1. Thank you, Brian. Good work! (That Noah story is ... interesting!)

  2. Good stuff, Brian.