I recently read a news article about a bargain hunter that went to an estate sale in Portland, Maine, to find a KitchenAid mixer. Rather than finding his kitchen appliance, he ended up walking away with a 700 year old treasure. Will Sideri stumbled upon a framed document hanging on a wall that caught his eye. It had an elaborate script in Latin, along with musical notes and decorative gold edges. Based on what he’d seen in a manuscripts class at College, he figured that this document was from the medieval ages. And it was a bargain at $75. Academics confirmed the parchment was from The Beauvais Missal, used in the Beauvais Cathedral in France, and dated to the late 13th century. It was used about 700 years ago in Roman Catholic Church. An expert on manuscripts said the document, first reported by the Maine Monitor, could be worth as much as $10,000. Will Sideri walked away with a priceless treasure that cost him just 75 bucks.
This news story reminded me of a parable taught by Jesus in Matthew 13:44. It reads, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” In this short verse we read that:
The treasure is hidden
The treasure is valuable
Sacrifice was needed to gain the treasure
The field was bought, but the treasure came free
What did Jesus mean with this parable? You can’t find The kingdom without looking (the treasure was hidden). Seek and you will find (you’ll never find it if you aren’t looking). The kingdom of God is valuable, and sacrifice is required to obtain the kingdom. The man in this parable joyfully went and sold everything. The Kingdom is freely given. When we seek and sacrifice for Christ, he freely gives us grace, mercy, peace and salvation.
Will we recognize the value that is found in the Kingdom of God?
Worry not. I am not writing an article about the 2021 National Champion Georgia Bulldogs, even though that is an article I had wished to write for decades. No, I am thinking of an archaeological discovery made in a Pompeiian house (“House of the Tragic Poet”) renowned for its exquisite frescoes and mosaics. Within the house’s vestibule, there is a dog mosaic. Below the dog, there are also these two words in Latin: “Cave Canem.” I imagine you have guessed from the context of our title what those Latin words mean. Yes, they read, “Beware of the dog.” (Literally, “Beware the dog.”) The mosaic dates to the second century BC.1
Did you imagine that the ancient Romans had “Beware of the Dog” signs? I admit being unaware of this until I stumbled upon a bit of clickbait on social media promising interesting archaeological finds. OK, so maybe this “sign” wasn’t the most breathtaking discovery ever. But it was interesting. It serves as an example of Solomon’s inspired truth that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1.9).
Typically, we think of the “Beware of the Dog” sign as a warning to unwanted visitors. It says, “We have a dog, and it may bite you.” However, scholars believe that the sign’s original purpose was the opposite. Visitors did not have to worry about dog attacks but needed to avoid trampling the family dog. “When you come inside, you will encounter a small animal we cherish. Please be mindful of him.”
The Italian Greyhound, for example, is an older breed originating more than two thousand years ago. It is the smallest of the sighthounds. The AKC states that breeders bred them as “noble companions.”2 That fits what we know of Pompeii, a resort town for wealthy Romans who would surely own such canines. Indeed, the House of the Tragic Poet was not the only house in Pompeii with a “Cave Canem” mosaic. It was just the first one excavated.
Now, why would I spend so much time within a religious forum talking about a “Beware of the Dog” sign? It so happens that Paul used that expression in Philippian 3.2: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (all ref. NASB1995 unless otherwise indicated). In Koine Greek, that is “Βλέπετε τοὺς κύνας.” As odd as it sounds to the dog-loving United States today, Arabs and Jews were more likely to despise dogs. Remember that even Jesus cautioned us, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs…” (Matthew 7.6).
Dogs were often wild and roamed in packs in ancient Judea. There was no archaeological evidence of pet dogs in the region until the post-exilic era.3 In their nondomesticated state, these dogs would do disgusting things like eating the bodies of the dead (e.g., 1Kings 14.11). These reasons are why generic Biblical scholarship believes Jews and Arabs dislike dogs and use the term as a byword for detested people. (Indeed, Western languages now likewise use “dog” in a derogatory manner, but it doesn’t impact the Western perception of the animal.)
Paul didn’t straddle the fence when it came to the truth, but he did straddle a cultural divide. He who was the “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3.5) would be the Apostle ordained to take the Gospel to the gentile world (Acts 8.15). That is why as outrageous as it sounds, we benefit from “Cave Canem” since knowing cultural concepts helps us better understand a verse’s context.
So, what was Paul saying here? To the Gentile, being asked to “beware of the dog” meant looking out for him, lest you trip over him. To the Jew, “beware of the dog” meant being wary of the one with a vile nature, fitting with their cultural perception of a dog. So, Paul begins with a Jewish insult. The third noun, translated as “concision” (KJV) or “false circumcision” (NASB1995), actually means “mutilation.” Would those Judaizers insisting that Gentiles be circumcised to become Christians enjoy being called a “mutilator?”
It sounds less like we are talking about multiple groups troubling the church at Philippi and more like Paul describes one group by using three noun descriptions. Two of the nouns speak more loudly to one cultural group. So then, what of the “evil workers?” Would this not also describe the same “mutilating dogs?” That seems to fit the context better. This second noun and its adjective also remind one of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.23, particularly in the King James Version: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” These latter “iniquity workers” felt they had done laudable things but discovered they neglected to do God’s Will (Matthew 7.21-23). We can make the case that such was true of the Judaizer also.
Lest anyone interpret this sentiment as anti-Semitic, we emphasize that the three nouns used by Paul work as well for any false teacher. Yet, the Judaizers were a thorn in Paul’s side as he fulfilled his ministry. And even though Gentiles doubtlessly read the words of this epistle, their Jewish brethren in this cosmopolitan congregation of Philippi could provide greater meaning while also helping their Gentile brethren be wary of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (cf., Matthew 16.6)
In conclusion, although the Bible serves as its own best commentary, we note we can obtain understanding through additional sources of information. Sometimes those sources can be surprising, like a dog mosaic in the vestibule of a Pompeiian house. Yes, there might be some put off by this idea that it takes effort to delve deeper into the word of God as we look for answers within God’s Word and without, in sources like archaeology. However, the proper mindset makes Bible study more attractive, even fun. You can find faith-building things everywhere. Just think about that the next time you see those words, “Beware of the Dog.”
The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was a Roman Catholic list of prohibited Bible versions. Anything other than the Vulgate was illegal to possess. Violations had severe penalties. No lay person would ever want to be caught with a common, modern translation while the Index had force of law.
While not nearly as dramatic as a forbidden book list, some have inadvertently created similar prohibitions. Their reasons are different, their motives less nefarious, but the outcome is equally destructive.
Are translations like the ERV and NIV perfect? No! But no one translation is perfect. Read multiple, but be sure to include versions like these in your study. If and when something comes up that seems different, investigate it! Spend some time figuring it out! Look at context, consult multiple translations, see how it fits with the author’s overall message.
This is a difficult statement, but true: many Christians do not understand the Bible. Some equate memorization with knowledge, but could not accurately elaborate on what a passage means. Secularization and hectic schedules are partially to blame, but difficulty understanding their translations is often the culprit.
(ESV): Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
(KJV): God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
(ERV): In the past God spoke to our people through the prophets. God spoke to them many times and in many different ways. And now in these last days God has spoken to us again. God has spoken to us through his son. God made the whole world through his son. And God has chosen his son to have all things. The son shows the glory of God. He is a perfect copy of God’s nature. The son holds everything together with his powerful command. The son made people clean from their sins. Then he sat down at the right side of the Great One (God) in heaven. God gave him a name that is a much greater name than any of the angels have. And he became that much greater than the angels.
Which was easier to read? Which was easiest to understand? The last probably shed some light on the ESV and KJV. How? It’s translated the way people actually communicate. It removes an obstacle to understanding that formal equivalence has kept in place for some time.
This quote is famously attributed to Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The same readily applies to the Bible, which was originally written in the recipients’ common language.
The translation committee for the English Bible for the Deaf include this statement at the beginning of their work:
“The main concern of the translators was always to communicate [the message] of biblical writers as effectively and as naturally as the original writings did to people in that time. Faithful translation is not just matching words in a dictionary. It is a process of expressing the original message in a form that will not only have the same meaning, but will sound as relevant, attract the same interest, and have the same impact today as it did thousands of years ago.”
Reading a modern translation that utilizes dynamic equivalence (alongside other translations) in personal Bible study is extremely helpful. Doing so can have no other effect than enhancing one’s understanding of God’s word!