Sunday, 19 March 2017

Seventy Disciples Or Seventy-Two?

Last Sunday at St John's we tried to get the congregation seeing (and feeling) a Bible passage from the inside, as it were, by getting them all to take part. The results were remarkable and illustrated just how much power there is in Scripture if you take the time to go deeper than the abstract religious stuff. But that's not my point today.

The passage we used was from Luke's Gospel, in the New Living Translation, and began:
The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit.
Straightforward enough, one might think, except that we've been seeing this passage quite a lot during our Partnership for Missional Church initiative, but usually in the New Revised Standard Version where it begins:
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
 Spot the difference.

On Sunday nobody mentioned this - they were too busy being struck by the contrasting experiences of welcome, exclusion and judgement which come later in the passage - but it certainly struck me as being odd: how can two modern translations of the Bible differ on something so simple? So I did some research.

The short answer seems to be that the original written by Luke probably said seventy-two, but that seventy makes more sense.

Translators don't have access to Luke's original, of course, so they have to work from copies of copies. The people who made these copies were incredibly accurate, but over centuries changes and 'corrections' did creep in. The earliest copies we have of this passage say 'seventy-two', but later on someone seems to have 'corrected' that to 'seventy' and copies of this 'corrected' version went on to be very influential in early English Bible translations.

So now we have a situation where translations which prioritise faithfulness to the original, such as the NLT, say there were seventy-two disciples sent out, whereas those which prioritise faithfulness to tradition, such as the NRSV, say there were seventy.

Problem solved? Not really: it just moves the question on to why anybody ever thought 'seventy' was a correction in the first place? Which takes us to the book of Genesis.

In chapter 10 of Genesis you get a passage known as the 'Table of Nations', where Noah is presented as the father of all the different races and people groups in the world. In the earliest Hebrew versions of this we have found there are seventy names in this list. However, in the main Greek version, called the Septuagint and translated two or three centuries before Luke was born, there are two extra names, making seventy-two. If I tell you that Luke's Gospel, like the rest of the New Testament, was written in Greek and tended to quote from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Scriptures, you can probably see where this is going.

The odds are that Luke was trying to make a point in this story about the disciples who were sent out representing all of the races of mankind, not just one or two. This sort of inclusiveness is an important theme in Luke's writing. So he uses a number which his readers would have recognised as referencing the Old Testament list of all the peoples of the world: seventy-two.

But later translators of the Old Testament used the Hebrew as their primary source so they ended up with just seventy races in the Table of Nations list - breaking the connection. Therefore they 'corrected' Luke to restore the likely point of the number in the first place.

So which number is best today? To be honest, hardly anybody in churches today knows their Old Testament well enough to recognise the point of either, so it doesn't really make a lot of difference.

Today we tend to think that numbers are all about counting, so we are more inclined to ask something along the lines of "how many were there really?" This would have seemed a very odd question back then, but does tend to bother us today.

The short answer, of course, is that we don't know. A longer answer might be that if Jesus was wanting to make the point he would have used the number from the Hebrew Scriptures: seventy. But for Luke the correct translation of that into Greek - meaning for meaning - would then be seventy-two. So working on pure likelihoods: seventy is probably the correct count of disciples, seventy-two is probably the correct literal translation of Luke, and seventy with a footnote back to Genesis 10 would probably be the truest meaning-for-meaning translation: I don't think any of them do that!

So, is there a less technical point to all this Bible geekiness? Actually I can think of three:
  1. The mission of the church includes everybody, irrespective of race, gender or all the other things that normally divide us;
  2. Have sympathy with Bible translators: it is a far more difficult job than we imagine;
  3. If you're given to quoting the Bible at people, always do so with extreme humility: there's a lot more to Scripture than we can possibly grasp, and our understanding is bound to be less than God's. The flip side of this is that if someone quotes Scripture at you, especially if they do so in a judgemental way, treat their words with caution: their understanding is also far less than God's, and if they are being judgemental then they don't even understand the very basics of Scriptural teaching:
"Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself"
On which (slightly judgemental) note I wish you grace and peace in the days ahead, and every blessing for you and yours.

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