Elvis Ain’t the King

Reality Check

Elvis is dead. Sorry, but I’m just one of those who faces the reality of that.

And Elvis isn’t “the King.” (actually, to me, he never was, but don’t get me started.)

So who is the king?

Translation Check
We just finished a 10-day marathon of translation checking, testing Acts verse-by-1007-verses for comprehension. Sort of a “desktop iron man” contest, actually.

Okay, so on to “cabbages and kings.” If Elvis ain’t the king, who is? Well, this question came up in checking the book of Acts. Not because there are any blue suede shoes in Luke’s first-century account, but because of some serious sociopolitical confusion.
Okay, speaking of confusion, get ready for a wild ride here…
Let me set the scene… the audience for our New Testament translation are Palawanos. They live a very simple life, in a jungle. Traditionally they have “clan leaders” in each community. Now they interact with the local (Philippine) government… things like “barrio captain” and “council.” They vote, and they know about the President, senators, governors, mayors, etc., but they really don’t have much of a grasp of what these jobs entail, nor do they understand the “pyramid scheme” hierarchy of it all. They don’t quite get it that “governors rule over a province,” since the idea of “province” is not at all clear to them, all blurred with concepts of “country, city, town.” Even the idea of “country” is not distinguished from the various ethnic group within it. And interestingly, they do not consider themselves “Filipinos.” They are “Palawanos” who live in the Philippines. They have a vague concept of “king” (sultan, actually) from when their ancestors were under the Sultan of Sulu hundreds of years ago. But then sometimes they might ask, “king and governor, that’s the same thing, right?” Basically it all sort of falls under “leader” in their minds.

Okay now, let’s turn to Acts and the 1st century world. Israel is a “country.” They had a “kingdom” and David’s line were the “kings.” But they don’t have a “kingdom” now. Rome is a “country,” but the Roman “empire” has forcefully taken Israel and lots of other “countries” under its rule. Rome has a “king” (or emperor) called “Caesar.” But Caesar’s not really his name, it’s a title (like Pharaoh) and all their kings are “Caesar.” The Jews get to govern themselves to a certain extent, so you have the Sanhedrin. But then you have Roman “governors” like Felix and Festus, assigned by Caesar to rule of “provinces” of his “kingdom” (so now, parts of the “country” of “Israel” are considered “provinces” of the Roman empire.) Israel doesn’t have a kingdom anymore, but wait… they have kings! Herod (and all the other Herods) are figurehead kings over parts of the Roman-ruled country of Israel. The Herods get to be “king” as long as they bow to Caesar. And then, of course, to top it off, you have Peter and Paul preaching about the Lord Jesus, the descendant of David who will sit on David’s throne as King.
See any um… chance for confusion there in the Palawano mind? Paul is arrested by the Jews and tried by them before the Sanhedrin. But then he is taken from them by the Roman soldiers and tried by Roman governors. One king (Argippa) listens to his testimony, but then Paul appeals to Caesar (another King) as the ultimate level of power. Meanwhile he keeps talking about the “kingdom of God” and the future reign of Jesus Christ.
So move over, Elvis… the “king” is Caesar… no wait, it’s David. …Agrippa? …Herod? Well, actually it’s the Lord Jesus but not everyone admits that yet.

Or how about this… Rome is a “city.” But it’s a country (also called “Italy”) which rules over lots of other countries. But not all the people under Rome are “Romans” (i.e. Roman “citizens.”) Paul is a Jew, but he’s a “Roman citizen.” However, the “Roman” soldier (the captain of those who arrested Paul) had to buy the right to be a “Roman.” So a Jew is born a Roman, but a “Roman” has to pay to be a Roman?? And other “Romans” aren’t “Romans” at all. And what does it mean to be a “Roman citizen,” and how is that different from being “someone who lives in the Roman empire”? All this for the Palawano language which has no concept of word for “citizen” other than “person of x-country.”

Then, for Palawanos who think of ethnicity, language and religion as a “package deal,” and who do not think of themselves as “Filipinos,” even though they live and vote in the Philippines, here is yet another confusing set of concepts.

Israel… it’s a country. It’s also a nation, meaning “those descended from Israel (whose first name was Jacob.)” These people are also called “Children Abraham” because he was Jacob, er… I mean, Israel’s grandfather. But the Israelis’ language is called “Hebrew” and sometimes their country is called “Canaan.” And these people are also called “Jews.” Sometimes that is talking about their religion, but sometimes it is referring to their nationality… so are they Israelites or Jews? Oh, both. Okay. So “Jew” speaks of their religion, but then you have “Jews” who now believe is Jesus. So Jews who are “Christians.” And you have Jews who “fear God” and have faith but who do not believe in Jesus. So are they believers or not?

All these things are confusing to a Palawano whose ethnicity, language, customs and religion all fall under one word (Pelawan).

Check (But Not Checkmate)
So those are some of the kinds of challenges we face in translation. It’s not just the search for words like “justification” or “holy.”
Of course you cannot embed a commentary into the book of Acts to clarify all the details of the first century sociopolitical world. But then you can’t necessarily just toss in a foreign word like “Judio” as an equivalent of “Jew” and think you’ve communicated clearly, either.

One more interesting issue that came up. “In Antioch believers were first called Christians.” In the Greek that was literally “little Christs.” It was a derogatory term which “stuck” so now we proudly call ourselves “Christians.” Well in Tagalog, this word is the Spanish “Cristiano.” So we used that. But we forgot that to the Palawanos “Cristiano” is not a word which means “believer in Christ.” It is a Tagalog word which, to them means “lowland Filipino” as opposed to “upland tribal person” or “Muslim.” So you can see the confusion. During the check, Nili understood this verse to be saying “In Antioch believers in Jesus were first called Filipinos.” Hmmm. Not quite the idea, is it? So we can’t use the borrowed Spanish/Tagalog term “Cristiano.” We’re looking for something more meaningful.

So Who’s The King?
Well, the Lord Jesus is. And we look for the day when he sets up his throne and deals with all those who refuse to acknowledge him.

In the meantime, we labor to translate God Word (and to have it communicate clearly) so that many Palawanos can enter the Kingdom of God, too.
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About billdavisthoughts

From San Diego, CA. I've been a missionary and Bible translator in the Philippines for over 30 years and have travelled as a language learning consultant to 15 countries. I play piano and guitar. I write, read voraciously and love to work on word puzzles. Married for 35 years, we have two daughters and two grandchildren.
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