The writers of the Bible used a word that's common in Texas vocabulary, but which I've unfortunately never seen in any of our current English translations of the Bible. This is a costly mistake, because failing to use this word completely changes how we see the respective passages of scripture. Therefore, I'm proposing that a group of native Texan-speaking Bible scholars get together and produce a new translation to correct this mistake and finally–because of our love of God and humanity–make appropriate use the all-important word: y'all. (Yes, I'm well aware that Texans aren't the only ones to use y'all. I lived in Georgia for six years, and it was every bit as central in the vocabulary there as it is here. But, like nearly everything good in the world, Texans probably invented it. And I've also previously speculated about the goodness of a Texas Translation of the Bible.)
Like many of us, for the majority of my life, I have tended to read the Bible as if every time that it uses the word "you," it means that the passage in question was intended to be a message from God directly to me. Our preference for individualizing the message of the scriptures is evidence of how we tend to individualize everything in our way of thinking and how difficult it is for us to read the Bible through the lenses of its original audience, who lived with a much more community-centered orientation than we do. (Texans may also be responsible for the invention of individualism, which doesn't play into our favor in the context of this post, but we would be able to correct that by producing this Bible translation.)
This issue first came to my attention several years ago. While living in Guatemala, as part of the process of learning Spanish, I had a Bible which had the Spanish and English translations next to each other on each page. I remember reading through the Sermon on the Mount and noticing that the Spanish used its equivalent of "y'all" throughout the sermon, but the English (apparently translated by a non-Texan) used the less accurate "you." In some passages, perhaps it doesn't make much practical difference, but in general it's a big shift in our thinking to look at a passage as being addressed to a community of people rather than to an individual.
I had been thinking about this for a while, and then it was confirmed in a fantastic book I read last year by Jack Levison called Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life. Jack is far from being a Texan (he was raised in New York of all places!), but he still understands the need for "y'all" thoroughly, and he describes it masterfully in one of the chapters in that book. In reference to the passage from 1 Corinthians 3 which says, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's spirit dwells in you?", Levison comments:
The “you” in this question is plural and could better be translated by the southern expression “y’all.” The metaphor of the spirit-filled temple occurs in a question posed, not to individuals, but to an entire community: y’all. Growing up, I heard time and again that my body was a temple of the holy spirit. That’s why, I was told, I shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. This was good advice; I am better off for never having smoked cigarettes. Still, this advice shows how easily people can apply a biblical text about communities to individuals. Renowned Pentecostal author Kenneth Hagin does this in The Holy Spirit and His Gifts. “Relatively few Christians,” he writes, “are really conscious of God in them— dwelling in their hearts and bodies as His temple” (26). Oddly, Hagin writes this despite quoting from the Amplified Version of 1 Corinthians 3: 16, which explicitly identifies the temple as the whole community: “Do you not discern and understand that you [the whole church at Corinth] are God’s temple (His sanctuary), and that God’s Spirit has His permanent dwelling in you— to be at home in you [collectively as a church and also individually]?”
He goes on in the rest of that chapter to set the passage from 1 Corinthians in its context, showing how opposed Paul was to those who would cause schisms within God's people. So, consider the difference between interpreting these emphases of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 as being written to individuals (you) or to a community (y'all):
- Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's spirit dwells in you?
- If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person.
- For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
- Do y'all not know that y'all are God's temple and that God's spirit dwells in y'all?
- If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person.
- For God's temple is holy, and y'all are that temple.
With my experiment this year, I've also been thinking of the difference this makes in the ways the Bible talks about prayer. Consider, for example, the difference between Jesus saying,
- "When you pray...[you] pray like this: Our Father in heaven..."
- "When y'all pray...[y'all] pray like this: Our Father in heaven..."
A really interesting case is with Paul's instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to "Pray without ceasing." Although "you" isn't in the verse in English or any other language, other languages specify whether commands are to an individual or to a group. So, again, there's quite a difference here, and what the scripture actually says is the second of these:
- "[You] pray without ceasing."
- "[Y'all] pray without ceasing."
Honestly, if "pray without ceasing" is a command to me as an individual, I don't know how to do that. I know the ways we usually talk about doing that as individuals, like being mindful of God all throughout the day or praying about whatever has our attention throughout the day. Like Levison's example of not smoking cigarettes, these are good advice, but I'm convinced they weren't what Paul had in mind.
Paul was thoroughly an ancient Jew, and therefore his habits of praying would have mostly been shaped by the community's practice of praying the psalms and other prayers at set times of the day (which I describe in Live Prayerfully as "praying with other people's words"). It was natural for the early Christians to continue the practice since it had been part of their Jewish heritage and therefore, shaped the prayer practices of Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and all the rest.
So when Paul said, "[Y'all] pray without ceasing," I think he was saying, "[Y'all] make sure you don't give up this practice of continually praying as a community."
Then, as Christianity spread around the globe, it appears that a "y'all" interpretation of this verse became even more significant. In Live Prayerfully, I wrote:
An interesting thing about how people have viewed this throughout history is that it is a very practical way for the entire church to literally fulfill Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.” Tomorrow morning after I wake up, the first thing I will do is to pray morning prayer. But I will do so only after Christians in Johannesburg said their morning prayers while I was fast asleep, and in the next hour another group in the next time zone will pray, and on and on through the night other Christians will wake up in their time zones, say their morning prayers, and then it will finally be our turn here in the USA’s Central time zone. Then it repeats at mid-day, evening, and night, so that constantly, all throughout the world, Christ’s people are praying, and in a very real sense, doing so together and without ceasing.
Something I've prayed this week (and y'all might have too):
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. (Psalm 67:1-2)
[This is the 29th post from A Year of Living Prayerfully]