Theology Thursdays: Dead Sea Scrolls, Prophecy and Messiah XIX
I was deeply touched this past Super Bowl Sunday by ESPN’s airing of a special feature on the last days of the late NFL great Reggie White. The segment which aired during the all-sports network's "Sunday NFL Countdown," was hosted by Andrea Kremer. It was poignant to me not only because of the way it captured the pain and strength of Mr. White’s widow and his surviving son, Jeremy, but also because of its chronicling of the journey that Reggie White’s spiritual life took, during and after his football career. As a Philadelphia Eagle football fan I was very well acquainted with Rev. Reggie White’s strong religious expressions but after he left to play for the Green Bay Packers, I did not much hear about Reggie White and his faith except for some controversy in the media over statements he made.
What I did not know, and which ESPN’s special made vividly clear was that for the past few years, Reggie White had begun to question elements of his religious beliefs and practices in extraordinary ways and had decided to discontinue his work in public ministry. According to reports Mr. White had “become a religious scholar of sorts, studying the Old Testament and the Torah”. He reportedly stated in a Fox Sports Net’s "Behind The Glory" profile, "I don't want to have nothing to do with Christianity. I do want to have something to do with the Jewish Messiah who died for my sins, but I don't want to have nothing to do with Christianity."
His new position and his studies, which eventually included 10 hours a day of learning Hebrew (under the guidance of Nehemiah Gordon) and studying the Torah, caused many of his friends to believe he was converting to Judaism or had become a heretic. Reggie White maintained, in interview footage in the special, that he was not converting to Judaism, but that rather, he was seeking to get closer to God. He mentioned that he believes a problem he experienced and witnessed in religion was the teaching of tradition as opposed to an emphasis placed foremost on the scriptures. He said he would never tell another person that God had spoken to him, unless he could know for sure from the original scriptures what God’s words were. In one portion of the special he explains that he believed he would know the Son better, if he knew the Father. It was clear to me, that from his perspective, he saw his relationship to the Messiah deepening from a study of Jehovah.
The show brought to mind several things. I first thought of numerous friends of mine, from childhood and more recently, some of whom are Black Christian Pastors, who have dedicated their lives to a fervent study of the scriptures, religion and theology. I also thought of this portion of what I wrote in Part XVIII of this series:
Over the last 15 years I have personally noticed an "explosion" in the supply and demand of Bible translations, concordances, apocrypha, study commentaries, historical narratives, and word origin books among Black Christians. I personally know directly or indirectly several Black preachers who have invested hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in these reference materials. Why? What is it that these Black Christian teachers are going after or pursuing as they look at different translations of the Bible, dissect words translated in English in search of their meanings in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek or when they read and intensely study commentaries, written by other men, about certain passages in the Old and New Testament? Are these Black Christians in their fervent study not essentially working to overcome a knowledge deficit that, for their people, uniquely began with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and an especially brutal period of mistreatement and miseducation in America?
On the point that Reggie White raised regarding how tradition had taken precedence over the scriptures in the religious beliefs and practices of many; I reflected over several verses of the Holy Qur’an that depict and warn about how the simple maintenance of inherited practices and the continuation of tradition for tradition’s sake affects our ability to accept reasonable presentations and invitations of others. I thought of how the prophets and warners are written to have been rejected because of the narrow mindedness of the people and their emotional attachments to religious tradition. Verses in two particular Surahs (Chapters) of the Qur’an stuck with me. They read (Yusuf Ali translation):
22. Nay! they say: "We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we do guide ourselves by their footsteps."
23. Just in the same way, whenever We sent a Warner before thee to any people, the wealthy ones among them said: "We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we will certainly follow in their footsteps."
24. He said: "What! Even if I brought you better guidance than that which ye found your fathers following?" They said: "For us, we deny that ye (prophets) are sent (on a mission at all)."
Surah 2 verse 170 succinctly expresses this dynamic:
170. When it is said to them: "Follow what Allah hath revealed:" They say: "Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers." What! even though their fathers Were void of wisdom and guidance?
Now, mentally try to place the history of Black Americans into these two quoted versions of Verses from the Qur’an. In Surah 43:23 consider how hard it would be for wealthy Americans to accept a divine warner sent to them from God, particularly if that person challenged the religious traditions that they had grown accustomed to and even institutionalized in their society. Imagine if that warner was from among the non-wealthy group of Americans.
In Surah 2:170 think of Black people in terms of those whose ancestors were “void of wisdom and guidance”. Not primarily through any original doing of their own, but because of the institution of slavery and their being stripped of everything including the knowledge of themselves, and their subsequent miseducation and misguidance. Then, a divine warner is sent to them who challenges their most deeply held emotional attachments to traditions which they have inherited – political, dietary and social. But give the closest attention to this group’s religious traditions, which they “inherited” from their fathers who were forced and made to accept them from others. Thinking of Reggie White’s apparently intense scrutiny of tradition and his investigation into scripture and language made me think of another portion of what I wrote on July 22, 2004, in Part XVIII of this series:
For the moment, think in terms of the history of Black people living in America and their interaction with the subject of religion and theology.
There are Black scholars and professors who teach at major universities throughout America who have written extensively about how Black people taken from Africa (of various belief systems) were systematically influenced to accept Christianity, primarily as it was taught to them by White slave masters and preachers. (When I was in college I read an interesting book on the subject called, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution In Antebellum South). But where did these Whites gain their understanding of the Bible?
Generally speaking they received their religion and most of the theological basis that undergirds it from other Whites living in Europe. One can study the process that resulted in the King James translation of the Bible, and the drama and intrigue surrounding John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English to learn important details regarding how the religious establishment in Europe handled the Bible and the education of the masses of people into their interpretation of it.
Then, one should study the theological debates between Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans and Episcopalians to learn even more details regarding the various interpretations of writings said to be inspired by the God. These debates and their consequences have had and continue to have serious political, economic, and scientific consequences for the entire world.
The study of the evolution of what is called Christianity, in Europe and how it spread and was taught in America; and how all of that differs in content, from the words of the historical Jesus and what he taught, should all be part of the research process and education of those seeking to understand the Black experience in America and the role of religion in American history.
Now, look at all of this from the perspective of a popular Black Christian Pastor preaching from The King James Bible, on television, about Jesus, whom he or she represents as the Messiah. Where did the ideas, arguments, and statements proclaimed by this prominent Black preacher originate? Some might say that what comes out of his or her mouth originated with the very person speaking. Others may say that the preacher got what he or she is teaching directly from God. Can either of those answers really be proven to any reasonable person?
Now think again of what Reggie White reportedly said: "I don't want to have nothing to do with Christianity. I do want to have something to do with the Jewish Messiah who died for my sins, but I don't want to have nothing to do with Christianity."
Another thing that came to mind while watching the ESPN special, particularly as footage was shown of Reggie White pouring over Hebrew scrolls of the Torah, was that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad made clear that the more accurate meanings of the scriptures that we have today, in English, could be found in the Hebrew and Greek translations. He also taught and included in The Muslim Program, “WE BELIEVE in the truth of the Bible, but we believe that it has been tampered with and must be reinterpreted so that mankind will not be snared by the falsehoods that have been added to it.” In his book Message To The Blackman and to others, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave greater details about the languages spoken by the prophets. For example, he wrote that Musa (Moses) spoke ancient Egyptian Arabic, and Isa (Jesus) spoke both Arabic and Hebrew.
Linguistics is the science of language; the study of the structure and development of a particular language and its relationship to other languages. Reggie White was deeply involved in that study and all of us who claim to believe in a writing or scripture that was revealed or authored in a language other than our own are inescapably affected by linguistics. Related to this is this interview excerpt from an article, “Freedom is untangling words and their meaning” by Jabril Muhammad. The article was preceded by the following verses from the Qur'an, "my brother, Aaron, he is more eloquent in speech than I, so send him with me as a helper to confirm me... He said: … We will give you both an authority, so that they shall not reach you. With Our signs, you two and those who follow you, will triumph.” (Holy Qur’an 28:34, 35)":
On December 4, 2004, I asked the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan: By the time you came into the Nation of Islam in 1955, you were already acquainted with the importance, the value and the use of such tools as dictionaries, thesauruses, synonym and antonym books. How did you first use them, even up to the present time?
Minister Farrakhan: Being a student of Latin, you become knowledgeable of suffixes and prefixes. And you become knowledgeable of the root of a word; how the word evolved; what is the origin of that word in terms of its origin, where did it come from. You learn that most English words evolved from either Latin or Greek. The Romance languages are French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and they come out of Latin.
Latin is considered a dead language, but as the Qur’an says, “He brings the living from the dead and the dead from the living.” So if you don’t know something of the dead language, you are missing the understanding of the living languages that are being used today by a great number of people on the planet.
Naturally, the meanings of words, and their shades of meaning are very, very important in developing our communicative skills.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad one day told me of Clarence Darrow and President Woodrow Wilson, and he said, “The degree of knowledge that they had of the English language was profound.” He said, “That’s why Clarence Darrow never lost a case.” When he told me that, even though I was a baby in English to him in terms of his depth of understanding of the language, he was telling me that when you master words and the various shades of meaning of words, you can take one word and use it as a weapon of offense and you can take the same word with another shade of meaning and use it as a weapon of defense.
So that is why I believe the Saviour, Master Fard Muhammad, said in The Problem Book, “You will not be successful unless you learn to speak the language well.” The entanglement of the people is an entanglement of words, and how they perceive the meaning of those words. So, the freedom of people is the untangling of their understanding or perception of meaning, and giving them a new and better meaning of a word that they think they know or understand. That goes back to the Qur’an in Surah 20 when (Moses) said, “Loosen the knot from my tongue that they may understand my speech.”
So the Word of God that came to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was a word that was designed to fit the condition of our minds at that time, but a deeper study of that same word would disentangle us from a limited understanding of what we thought we understood when we first heard that word.
So, through the plain language and the metaphorical language—which is the language that uses nature and the creatures of God to describe characteristics of human beings and nations; the forces of nature; the wind; the weather; aspects of zoology; aspects of botany; aspects of anthropology; aspects of meteorology; aspects of physics and chemistry and science—all of this language is used in scripture to couch and hide even truth, as well as to give a mind that is not yet ready for deeper aspects of truth enough to free that mind to start a movement toward the deeper understanding of what God had in mind when He revealed what He revealed.
Brother Jabril: He said to me one day that Master Fard Muhammad told him the number of dialects that both Clarence Darrow and President Woodrow Roosevelt knew of English. The number was around 23 and 22 respectfully, or close that. I just don’t remember the exact number right now. Did he ever mention to you anything like that?
Minister Farrakhan: No. He mentioned to me the degrees of understanding of the language that they both had mastered, which set them apart from their contemporaries in their ability to master language.
Sometimes, Brother Jabril, I didn’t use the dictionary. I would just use what I understood of the prefix, the suffix and the main word if it had a Latin root. Then, I would compare what I saw in the definition, even to what Webster said. Then, sometimes my definitions were deeper and more profound than what was in the dictionary.
Brother Jabril: Now, Brother Minister, that’s getting really deep into the very origin of the word—its very spirit!
One of America's Founding Fathers, Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress until 1789 and signer of the Declaration Of Independence made the first translation of the Greek Septuagint Bible into English, in a process that took him decades. In a letter written to Rev. Samuel Miller and dated January 6, 1801 he wrote about the standards that guided the process of his translation. He wrote:
"Attached to no system nor peculiar tenets of any sect or party, I have sought for truth with the utmost ingenuity, and endeavored to give a just a true representation of the sense and meaning of the Sacred Scriptures; and in doing this, I have further endeavored to convey into the translation, as far as I could, the spirit and manner of the authors, and thereby give it the quality of an original."
"To translate well is: 1, to convey a just representation of the purpose of an author; 2, to convey into the translation the author's spirit and manner; 3, to give it the quality of an original by making it appear natural, a natural copy without applying words improperly, or in a meaning not warranted by use, or combining them in a way which renders the sense obscure, and the construction ungrammatical or harsh."
Was Brother Reggie White really a religious heretic and a man not following the Messiah in his search for God in the Hebrew language, as some charged?
How many Black Christians know the details of how the King James version of the Bible that they believe in was translated or the process by which the first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts were produced in the 1380s by John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian.
He translated the Bible out of the Latin Vulgate, the only source available to him.
Thursday, February 17, 2005