Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Knotty NOT NOT Problem in Scriptures - Part III

The reason I am writing this series on NOT NOT is because Bible passages can get misinterpreted easily. At the heart of the issue is what linguists refer to as logic. By following certain logic principles when we read the Bible, we are more likely to come to a right understanding of a passage.

Consider this NOT NOT verse from Hebrews 4:15 (NASB),
15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

In the NASB's convention, the words we are, yet are placed in italics to indicate they are added for our understanding and are not in the original Greek text.

The High Priests
The statement ‘for we do not have a high priest’ would normally suggest we should look back to see what was previously stated about the topic. The problem is nothing is stated regarding the high priest before that verse. It is only when we reach the next chapter, Hebrews 5:1-3, where we read about the system of gifts and sacrifices for sins. In those three verses we see that these sacrifices are for both the sins of the people and his own sins.

5:1 For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins;
2 he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness;
3 and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself.

Based on verse 5:3, an inferred statement seems to accompany v4:15.
  ‘we have an order of high priests that can sympathize with our weaknesses.’
The high priest was prone to sin; his sacrifice was first for his own sins and then for the people.

In linguistics, that inferred or missing statement is called an ellipse, omitted word or words that are understood by the reader. The Hebrew reader of this text would certainly have known that the selected high priest is not perfect and not one without sin. For the non-Hebrew reader, it was included in verses 5:1-3 as shown above. Therefore, this inferred statement was not necessary and was omitted.

Jesus the Great High Priest
So lets go back to our NOT NOT verse from Hebrews 4:15,
15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

In this verse, there is also the comparison between Jesus, the great high priest, and the order of Levitical high priests. The question is, is it logically correct to substitute the name Jesus into that phrase and then change both NOT NOT statements to a positive? If we did, we would have,
  ‘For we have Jesus who can sympathize with our weaknesses [i.e. our sins].’
I suggest that, just as the Part I and II lessons attempted to show when there are two or more nouns or verbs: two negatives do not necessarily make a positive. Therefore, that statement is an incorrect inference from verse 4:15.

I believe that Jesus did not sympathize with us because He was inclined to sin, but He loved us because we are inclined to sin. That would yield this statement:
  ‘For we have Jesus who loves us despite our weaknesses [i.e. our sins].’
To me, there is a huge difference between one who sympathizes and another who loves. Sympathy may motivate an action such as a once-a-year sacrifice; true love motivated His perfect sacrifice.

Our school training may have taught us that two NOT statements become a positive. That is true in only a limited sense. In a more complicated manuscript such as the Bible, it becomes important to look at the number of nouns and verbs that are involved in the NOT NOT. The NOT NOT rule only applies to those that have a simple sentence structure.

This is the last of the Knotty NOT NOT articles. In the next series, I will discuss my favorite topic, literary structure in the Bible. I am anticipating that my forthcoming book Discovering Emphasis in the Bible: Hearing the Voice of God Through Literary Structure will soon be available for preview purposes.