Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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11/10/15: let's fast forward 4000 years...

Let's fast forward 4000 years and meet Professor Zainassian.  Zainassian is a long established expert in the ancient and obsolete language 'English'.  He established his reputation as a young research student when he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to be part of a team which analysed a chance find of long forgotten 20th century novels.

In going through the novels Zainassian found a very puzzling phrase, 'spend a penny'.  What can this possibly mean?  OK, first start with an analysis of the words.  'Spend' - to part with money to another person in order to gain something'.  'A' the indefinite article.  'Penny' a small amount of money, the value of which changed over time.

Hmmm, none of this very helpful.  So Zainassian instead examined the contexts in which this phrase is used.  Again, nothing very helpful here.  Phrase used more of men than women, children than adults, but not conclusive.  Mostly people by themselves but again not always - and when there was more than one person no indication that one person is spending the money and the other is receiving it.  Mostly but not always when people are out of their homes.

So, the contextual analysis was inconclusive, Zainassian returned to the words.  'Spend a penny' - parting with a small amount of money.  But to whom? And why?  All right, let's assume that somebody else is present to receive the money which the text does not indicate.  Why would this be?  And that was the beginning of Zainassian's big breakthrough, as he made the connection between these shadowy people and the caste system of India, an English speaking country - it was well understood by contemporary English experts that the culture of all English speaking countries was much the same.  So, one can infer that when somebody spent a penny, that money was given to a member of a low caste whose presence is considered too insignificant to be worth mentioning explicitly.

So, that solves the problem as to who the money is given to.  What was being given in return?  Nothing which was mentioned again, so presumably nothing tangible.  So a service of some kind.  How about security work?  Zainassian, excited by this hypothesis, went back over the texts which used this phrase, and found much to his delight that it all seemed to check out, that the idea that 'spending a penny' equated with 'buying some security from a low caste person' seemed to fit at least most of the instances of the use of the phrase.

Wow, what a fantastic breakthrough!  Zainassian published this finding in an important linguistics journal and soon found himself invited to conferences across the world to explain and discuss this theory.  He obtained a prestigious position, research funders applied to him in their desire to be associated with his next work, all assistant positions working with him were hugely competitive.  Zainassian's reputation had been secured, and one of the tasks of his students was to take the apparently problematic references where the theory did not seem to fit, and to show how in fact the phrase did still work - which in some cases took considerable and elaborate explanation.

Until many years later when another set of 20th century novels were found, and Kraitobia, a young keen research student found a new reference to this phrase 'spend a penny' which made it very clear that this was a contemporary euphemism for urinating, originating from public toilets which had a lock which required a penny to activate.  Considerably surprised by this, since the security theory had long since been accepted, Kraitobia re-examined every known instance of the phrase 'spend a penny' to find that this explanation fitted perfectly - including one or two for which the security theory took considerable explanation to fit.

So, Kraitobia wrote up her findings and submitted an article to a linguistics journal.  The article was sent to Zainassian for review.  As Zainassian read the paper through, his surprise turned to anger turned to rage.  What impudence!  How dare this young upstart contradict him in this way!  Who was she to undermime all these years of study and scholarship!  Zainassian not only rejected the article for publication, but made it very clear that this theory would not be put forward in any shape or form, nor was Kraitobia to be given a post by any institution which wished to continue to be associated with him.  Kraitobia quickly discovered that nobody wished to speak with her and, after several attempts to promulgate her theory and obtain a further position, realised that she was going nowhere and quietly disappeared from view.

I'm currently working through the book of Genesis where, of course, the challenge is not going forward 4000 years but back that length of time.  Actually, that takes us back to Abraham who first appears in chapter 11, timings for events before that are not entirely clear.  Going through the early stages of the Bible carefully with the help of the 'NIV Application Commentary' is proving very interesting, particularly in establishing what it is I think I know about these events which is not actually in the text.  So, for example, did you know that in the account of Noah, there is no record of anything he actually said until well after the flood was over?  Although there is mention of him preaching in the BIble, not in Genesis but in 1 Peter 3:20.

But just as my fictitious scholars 4000 years in the future puzzle over the phrase 'spend a penny', and just as contemporary writers may well use the phrase assuming that readers will know what it means and see no reason to explain it, so in the early part of the Bible there are a number of frustrating instances of uses of words which it would appear made perfect sense at the time but the meanings have now got lost.  So, various questions arise which become more puzzling with more study.  To give some examples, where was Adam when Eve was being tempted by the serpent?  What is it exactly that Cain was doing wrong in offering a sacrifice which meant that God rejected those sacrifices?  What exactly did Ham do wrong when he found his father, Noah, naked and drunk?  What advantage was there for a man to pass his wife off as his sister, which Abraham did twice and Isaac once, when in each reported instance it caused major problems?  In each case, various theories can be - and are - put forward, but none are entirely satisfactory or beyond counter-suggestion.

When I was working part-time as a church organist in the late 1990s, I was very fortunate to work alongside Rev Alex Ross, one of the finest preachers I've come across.  One of Alex's particular strengths was to encapsulate in just a few words really important truths.  A number of these have stuck with me, one of which is, "My problem with the Bible is not the bits I don't understand.  No, my problem with the Bible is the bits I do understand."

It stands to reason that, written centuries ago in different cultural contexts, there are bits which are not going to make sense to us.  Similarly, in giving narrative accounts eg. of Gideon putting down a fleece to determine the will of God, it is not clear whether Gideon was right to put God to test in this manner, nor whether this is a model for us to emulate (I tend to the view that it is not).  And it is right that we should look to study these passages, to cross-reference, to debate, to learn, to seek God's guidance as we look to understand His word.

But as Alex rightly points out, the problem with the Bible really are the aspects which do come through clearly - the consequences of sin, the salvation we can have through Christ Jesus, the call, having been saved, to live lives worthy of Him.  A consequence of study can be that we end up obscuring issues with so many words and so many different points of view we lose sight of where we started.  Or to put the point another way, the Christian faith is so simple that anybody of any age can understand it, and so complex that the finest scholars can spend 10 lifetimes and still not comprehend.  Bwana Yesu asifiwe!  May our Lord Jesus be praised!

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